2016 Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Round-up

1. Books I Loved

Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

Twenty years after a devastating flu epidemic wipes out most of Earth’s population, a band of actors and musicians, known as ‘The Symphony’, travel the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic North America, performing Shakespeare and classical music for the surviving communities they encounter. The novel’s title refers to a mysterious graphic novel treasured by Kerstin, one of the young actors in The Symphony.  As the story moves back and forth between ‘Year 20’ and the time before the plague, and the characters’ stories slowly unfold, Station Eleven becomes the lynch pin holding it all together.  I loved this evocative, powerful story about the ways in which our lives are shaped by history and circumstances. Station Eleven is a speculative novel about science fiction in which a line taken from an episode of Star Trek, Voyager (“Survival is insufficient”) becomes profoundly meaningful.

Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2014) `

A young woman called Rosemary takes a job as a clerk aboard The Wayfarer just as Captain Ashby and his dedicated crew of wormhole builders receive the offer of a lifetime. A lucrative but risky job. There is an adventure and peril ahead, but really this is all about the characters and their relationships with each other. If you’re sick of grim dark, look no further. The Long Way to A Small Angry Planet is a lovely space opera with good people doing their best in difficult circumstances.   Plus it has bisexual aliens and that queer family of choice dynamic that so many of us find irresistible.  The aliens in particular are wonderful. I think my favourite is the Grum, Dr Chef. It does have a first novel feel and there were places where I thought things could be more developed, but overall I loved it and have already bought the next in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit.

Emma Newman, Planetfall (2015)

Renata Ghali is an engineer in charge of maintaining the 3D printers that supply her colony with all its material goods. She has a severe anxiety disorder and still grieves the loss of her beloved Lee Suh-Mi, the woman who led them to this distant world over twenty years previously. The community believes that Suh Mi has disappeared into the strange alien structure that looms over their town and that one day she will return. But then a stranger appears at the borders of their world, a young man who claims to be Suh Mi’s grandson and the sole survivor of a group of colonists who were lost in a terrible accident during Planetfall.  This young man comes with the power to destroy everything and reveal the lie upon which the life of the colony has been built. Planetfall is a compelling and desperately sad book about secrets, grief, loss and the inability to change and let go. It is also a book about materialism and the way that things can come to own us and prevent us from seeing the truth of our situation.

Nnedi Okerforar, The Book of Pheonix (2015)

Pheonix Okore is a ‘Speciman’ created in the laboratories of a corporation known as the “Big Eye”. Pheonix is intended to be a terrible weapon, a creature with the power to burn up and consume everything in her path, only to regenerate and return to life again within a few days. With the help of her fellow specimen, Pheonix escapes from her creators, and sets out for Africa where she finds community and love. But Pheonix is not left in peace for long. Like Mary Shelley’s monster years before, what Pheonix learns about the world soon sets her on a destructive course.  The Book of Pheonix is an allegory for our times. It is a highly literate and richly intertextual, post-colonial SF fantasy full of references to history (slavery, medical experimentation on women of colour), pop culture, religious texts, science fiction (Frankenstein, The Island of Dr Moreau), mythology, and theory (Roland Barthes makes an appearance at the end).  It left me wanting to read all of Nnedi Okerforar’s books. This novel is a prequel to Who Fears Death?, so I’m looking forward to that.

Caitlin Keirnan, The Drowning Girl (2012)

India Morgan Phelps (Imp) is an artist with schizophrenia who finds her life being increasingly destabilised by her encounters with a mysterious and possibly threatening figure named Eva Canning, a girl who may also be a wolf.  Imp can’t trust her memory or her perception of reality, but she must try and unravel the meaning of Eva if she is to survive. She is a completely unreliable narrator (at least in a conventional sense), but that doesn’t matter. The Drowning Girl is after other truths. This is a beautiful, haunting Gothic tale about art and creation, and the destructive impulses that can be at the core of creation. It is another intertextual novel, a book about the relationship between women and art – particularly woman as destructive siren, woman as beautiful muse and woman as creative artist -and the interplay between these figures.

Kelly Link, Stranger Things Happen (2001)

This is an excellent collection of fantasy and horror stories. A dead man tries to write to his wife in ‘Lily, Carnation and Rose’.  A graduate student falls in love with a girl with a very strange family in ‘Water off a Black Dog’. ‘The Specialist’s Hat’ is a super-creepy tale in which two girls play at being dead.  ‘Flying Lessons’ riffs of Greek Mythology and ‘Travels with the Snow Queen’ is a feminist response to the fairy story. ‘The Survivors Ball’ has the quality of a nightmare.  Check her out if you like Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury and Flannery O’ Connor.

Maureen F. McHugh, Mothers and Other Monsters (2005)

I found this collection a little inconsistent, but it features some very strong stories. The first, ‘Ancestor Worship’ is a great take on death. ‘In the Air’ is a sweet story about a girl who lives with the ghost of her dead twin (not actually depressing). ‘The Cost to Be’ is a powerful and very grim science fiction story about colonialism, which actually feels a little out of place in the collection. ‘The Lincoln Train’ is set in an alternative history in which President Lincoln survived the assassination attempt and deported former slave owners to the West. ‘Interview: On Any Given Day’ is a thought provoking meditation on youth and ageing. Ageing is a recurring theme with several poignant stories about dementia.

Nancy Kress, Crossfire (2011)

A diverse group of colonists find that the supposedly uninhabited world on which they have just settled is also home to some odd aliens who don’t seem to have originated there. As they observe, they begin to suspect that the creatures are being subjected to some kind of science experiment. The colonists soon find themselves caught in the crossfire in the war between two alien races.  In many ways. this is an old-fashioned, science fiction adventure, but it’s Nancy Kress, so it has complex, nuanced characters and asks big moral and philosophical questions.  The Quaker Minister and his rebel daughter, Nan, are especially good. Bonus lesbians too.

2. Books that I personally enjoyed, but …  

Connie Willis, Blackout (2010)

This World War II time travel epic is nostalgic and sentimental in a way that I would usually dislike, but I forgave it because I wanted a big, entertaining read that I could sink into. On this level, it delivered.  Don’t expect feminism or diverse characters though.

Stephen King, Doctor Sleep: Shining Book 2 (2013)

Okay, I am willing to give Stephen King a pass on stuff that I would never put up with from other writers because his books were so important to me as a teenager. I didn’t think that Dr Sleep was particularly good but I read it anyway and enjoyed it, despite the fridged woman, weird lesbian-sex-curing-trauma-thing (Stephen!?), and the kind of misogynist representation of the villain (she has a phallic tooth!). So, not his best, but it still had me gripped. I liked grown-up Danny well enough. Abra, the little girl with the big shine (psychic powers, if you haven’t read The Shining), is quite well done. I do think King is good at kids.

Sarah Lotz, The Three (2014)

Three children survive three plane crashes that kill everyone else aboard.  Is it a miraculous coincidence, or is something truly weird going on? The children seem changed, but maybe they’re just traumatised. As the survivors grapple with the aftermath and an investigative journalist tries to unpick the story, it all gets stranger and creepier. The Three is fun to read, packed with pop culture references and very much a book that tries to say something about digital cultures and mass media.  It kept me entertained during a long train journey, but I felt it was trying to be a bit too clever.  I’d also suggest that you avoid it if you hate ambiguous endings.

Vonda McIntyre, Starfarers (1989)

I really wanted to like this more than I did.  It has an interesting premise. Scientists who are about to use cosmic strings to take their ship to another star system suddenly finding their project under threat of being hijacked by the Government. Do they obey orders and hand over the ship or continue with the mission? Three characters are in a polyamorous relationship and there is a potentially interesting side story about genetically engineered humans who live in the sea and their relationship with one of the scientists. It was okay, but Starfarers never really took off from me. I wanted more character development all round and, for some reason, just didn’t feel any tension in the narrative.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, The Disappeared (Retrieval Artist #1) and Extremes (Retrieval Artist #2)

Interesting premise with detectives on a lunar colony solving cases connected to people who have been “disappeared” to try and avoid paying the price for crimes against alien races.  Excellent aliens in the first one and I liked the moon marathon murder mystery in the second. I did find that both novels dragged a bit though and I was feeling tired of them by the time I got towards the end. That may just be me of course.

3. Still working on it – Books unfinished at the end of 2016

James Tiptree Jnr., Her Smoke Rose up Forever
Amazing, but bleaker and more disturbing than I anticipated.

Ray Bradbury, Stories: Volume One
This is going to take a while, but I’m sure will be worth the effort.

Linda Nagata, The Red: First Light
Not usually into military Sci fi, but this has me interested.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch, The Diving Bundle: Six Diving Universe Novellas
Good bedtime reading.

Judith Tarr, Forgotten suns
I am struggling with this one because I’m not emotionally engaged with the POV characters, but I’ll try and finish it.

James A Corey, Leviathan Awakes: Book 1
Over 40% of the way in (according to my e-reader) and I’m just not interested. Oh well, I’ll give the television adaptation a try. Maybe I need visuals.

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