Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 23/11/2017

Dystopia has a long history in literary fiction. A breakdown in social order, or a reshaping of society, is a useful lens through which we can examine our own society and actions. So it comes as no surprise that Native American author Louise Erdrich is another in a long line of literary writers who have taken on dystopia. The dystopian present creeps up slowly in Future Home of the Living God. The opening passage has narrator Cedar Hawk Springmaker – ‘the adopted child of Minneapolis liberals’ – heading to an Ojibwe reservation to meet her Native American birth-family. She does mention in this opening passage that ‘Our world is running backward. Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped.’ Cedar is four months pregnant but this is a secret that she has kept from her adopted family. Of all the sections of the novel, Erdrich treats those on the Ojibwe reservation with a refreshing naturalism. Cedar arrives to find very few of her preconceptions of her birth family met. While she seems to have a very Native American name, her birth name was Mary Potts. Her mother is welcoming but not apologetic about Cedar’s life and her…

Terra Nullius by Claire G Coleman
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 24/10/2017

Claire G Coleman won a black&write! Fellowship in 2016 for her manuscript of Terra Nullius. The Fellowship was established to support unpublished Australian Indigenous writers to complete their works and find a publisher. Terra Nullius is based on the experience of Coleman’s people, the Noongar of South Western Australia. But this is not their story. Only the blurb on the back of the book stating that “This is not the Australia of our history” and some odd details in the early part of the text flag this is actually a work of speculative fiction. When Terra Nullius opens, Native servant Jacky is on the run from his Settler masters, pursued by Troopers who see this as a potential call to rebellion. At the same time, Sister Brarga runs the local mission where Native children, taken from their families, are treated harshly and taught to be servants; Jonny Star, a Trooper gone rogue, has joined a gang of Native outlaws; and Esperance leads a group of free Natives deeper into the desert to escape Settler expansion. About a third of the way through Coleman twists the narrative. And while hints abound in the text, she becomes very explicit, bringing in some…

Sea of Rust by Robert Cargill
Review , Science Fiction / 17/10/2017

Post-apocalypses now come in may flavours. One of those is the robopocalypse. Man builds robots, robots become sentient, man tries to reign in robot sentience, robots revolt. Whether or not the robots win tends to often be the point. Think Terminator for a good example of this trope. And actually, Terminator is a good analogy for the milieu of C Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust, although instead of Skynet there are a bunch of artificially intelligent overlords, making things a little more chaotic. The other difference is that Sea of Rust is post-human, set in an age 30 years on from the death of the last human and only robots walk the Earth. So there is no human resistance to worry about. But as with animal evolution, these robots seem to have developed into every human-type of evolutionary niche. Sea of Rust opens with Brittle, a Caregiver model, eking out an existence in the badlands. Brittle is a scavenger, finding other robots on the edge of death, talking them into shutting down with the faint hope of salvation, and then stripping them for parts. She (yes, robots have gender in this world), operates in and around the Sea of Rust,…

Provenance by Ann Leckie

When you have built an award-winning universe, there is little point starting a new one. Much better to go, as Ann Leckie does in Provenance, and explore another corner of it. Iain Banks understood this and, similarly, set many of his science fiction novels in and around his expansive Culture universe. For readers steeped in Leckie’s universe, having been on board for the trilogy that started with her multi award winning debut Ancillary Justice, small call backs and particular characters and situations have greater import. For those new to Leckie’s universe it allows her to produce a stand-alone novel with a more epic feel. The events of the Ancillary trilogy are referenced but as one of the characters herself observes “that was very far away”. Provenance opens with Ingray Aughskold  trying to pull off an audacious plan to attract the attention of her mother, the Netano. Ingray, in competition with her brother to take the title of Netano, pays all of the money she has to organize the release of a prisoner from “Compassionate Removal” a prison from which, supposedly, no one returns. It is after the transaction does not go as planned and she is down her luck that…

Killing is My Business by Adam Christopher
Crime , Review , Science Fiction / 29/08/2017

A few years ago, Adam Christopher had a fantastic idea based on a dare from a long dead author. Raymond Chandler, one of the greats of noir fiction derided science fiction. Out of his comment “they pay brisk money for this?” came Christopher’s short story Brisk Money, which itself morphed into the science fiction noir detective mashup novel Made to Kill. Made to Kill was set in the 1950s and centred on Ray Electromatic, the last robot in America, plying his trade as a private detective, only not. Ray’s handler, a computer called Ada, had reasoned logically that assassinations paid more money and so while Ray’s cover was as a detective his day job was an efficient killer. Killing is My Business is a the second in a projected trilogy about Ray Electromatic. Early on, Ray’s first couple of hits go wrong, the first through apparent suicide and the second because his target has done a runner.  So Ray takes on another job, getting close to a mafia boss in order to find out his secrets before killing him. There is lot of set up here and then a huge leap of faith that the mafia boss would take Ray…

The Undercurrent by Paula Weston

Superpowered teens seem to be everywhere you look at the moment. From the third time lucky reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, to the YA book world with series like Zeroes. In the world of The Undercurrent there is only one superpowered teen – sixteen year-old Juliette DeMarchi. But as is “normal” in the superpowered teen world her ability to manage her powers quickly becomes a metaphor for growing up. The Undercurrent opens with a bang. An attack on the headquarters on mega corporation Pax Fed in Brisbane, where Juliette was going for an abortive job interview. When things go pear shaped, Juliette is rescued in a bit of a “meet-cute” by young soldier Ryan, part of a squad of soldiers sent to protect her. This is the set up for a tale of coming-of-age and corporate skullduggery. Juliette’s mother Angie is talked into going back into her old protest group, the Agitators who have become more extreme in her absence, to foil a plot to attack a nuclear power plant in South Australia. Meanwhile Juliette is sent into protection with Ryan on his family’s dying farm not far from the plant. Weston manages to ramp up the tension in both…

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O by Stephenson and Galland

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O is the new hefty tome from the pen of Neal Stephenson. But this is not a tech or maths heavy read like Seveneves or Anathem. This time he has brought along fellow author Nicole Gallard who manages to considerably lighten the tone. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O can best be described as a romp. It is science fiction that never takes itself all that seriously. Even the acronym provides a cute running gag in the early part of the book. In 1851, witchcraft died in the world. In the present day, a group of American military scientists are trying to bring it back using quantum theory. When they manage to do so, they use witchcraft to send their operatives back in time and manipulate history. And then their problems really begin. D.O.D.O is narrated in a documentary style. Much of it is the memoir of Melisande Stokes, one of the early operatives of the organisation, stuck in 1851 as witchcraft is dying and writing for future prosperity. But there are also plenty of other diary entries, emails, memos and letters and even an ancient Viking Saga entitled “The Lay of Walmart”. There is…

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 03/08/2017

Another day, another apocalypse. In Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From, England has been hit with some unspecified catastrophe that involves rising flood waters. The usual post-apocalyptic actions take place: people are evacuated, the military comes out, borders and checkpoints are established. In amongst all of this, the unnamed narrator has her first child, Z, and the story follows Z’s first few years of life in post-disaster Britain.  Megan Hunter’s prose is spare to the point of almost being poetry. Short sentences in short paragraphs, interspersed with quotes. None of the characters have names. This gives a point of difference to a story that has now been told a few too many times. All of the clichés are there – the refugee camps, nasty roadside border guards, saviours with a boat, a short time of salvation on a remote island – but in a poetic form that makes it, to a minor extent, feel new.  The focus of the book is Z’s first few years of life. While growing up in the middle of a crisis, the narrator’s relationship with her son and her observations might well have just been happening in any daycare centre. Z smiles, Z learns how to eat solids,…

When the English Fall by David Williams
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 31/07/2017

After the sturm and drang of books like World War Z and Robopocalypse it seems the quiet apocalypse is becoming the order of the day. Books like Station Eleven and Good Morning, Midnight eschew the cataclysmic to focus more purely on the personal. When the English Fall starts with a bit of a bang (a passenger plane falls from the sky) and there is clearly some violence happening somewhere. But for the most part, things are pretty quiet in rural Pennsylvania. When the English Fall is told as a series of diary entries by an Amish man called Jacob. There is a fairly unnecessary intro by the soldiers or researchers who find the diary at some later time, an open which is never returned to or referred to again and shines no light on the open ending. The English of the title is the description used for anyone who is not Amish so includes their American neighbours. The Amish have lived a devout and simple existence – think the movie Witness – horses and buggies are commonplace, very little machinery is used in their farms and they have guns but they are only used for hunting. So while they are…

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar
Review , Science Fiction / 28/07/2017

Lavie Tidhar, an Israeli-born author living in London, has won acclaim and more than one award for his fantasy novels. Central Station, his latest novel, is straight down the line science fiction and was shortlisted for the 2017 Arthur C Clarke Award. Central Station explores the lives of a group of connect characters who live in and around a launch pad for intersolar travel in the middle of a future Tel Aviv. The front of the novel has a map of the area but the action never strays far from the base or the insides of the Station itself. The story opens with Miriam “Mama” Jones who runs the local shebeen and her adopted vat-grown son Kranki, who come to wait for the passengers of the ships that dock at the Station. When an old lover and friend, Boris Chong, returns to Earth to see his dying father a chain of events is kicked off which reveals a little more about their world. Despite the setting being constrained to the world just around the Station, Tidhar manages to use this as an entrée to a much broader universe that includes settlements on Mars and throughout the solar system. This includes,…

Watch Over Me by Claire Corbett

Claire Corbett’s debut novel, the fantasy/crime genre mash up When We Have Wings was shortlisted for both the Ned Kelly Award for best first novel and the Barbara Jefferis Award given for the depiction of women in Australian fiction. Her new novel, Watch Over Me is far from When We Have Wings, but is also concerned with the plight of women, in particular during wartime. Set in a contemporary but slightly alternate world, it explores the impacts of war and occupation on both the conquerors and the conquered. Nineteen year-old Sylvie’s hometown, the northern European city of Port Angelsund, has been occupied by a force known as the Garrison. Garrison have come to secure a rich energy source off the coast and the rest of the world looked on as the city was occupied. Now Sylvie lives in a world of checkpoints, drones, violence and constant surveillance while the population waits for possible salvation from the equally violent Coalition. When Sylvie is rescued from an abusive situation by a Garrison special forces officer a connection is made that eventually sees her in his arms. Sylvie ends up caught between protecting her mother and younger brother, her revolutionary older brother and…

Killing Gravity by Corey J White
Review , Science Fiction / 13/07/2017

Imagine a space opera stripped back to its barest essentials and you have the debut Killing Gravity from Australian author Corey J White. Everything is here – kick ass main character, possibly loveable side characters, a moustache twirling villain, space battles, future tech, a mystery to be solved, strange new planets – but in a condensed almost novella form that has the action zipping past. Given this is the first in a potential series, this is possibly more space overture than space opera.

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit was one of the most immersive, original and engaging science fiction books of 2016. It, deservedly, ended up on a number of award shortlists and heralded the arrival of an exciting new voice in the genre. But for all that, Ninefox Gambit felt a little like table setting for a much larger story. The heart of Ninefox Gambit was a military campaign around a particular station that had been captured by the enemy Hafn. This focus left a feeling of so much more of the universe and its various factions and races left to explore. But it was necessary table setting and while it takes a while to get accustomed to the Yoon Ha Lee’s universe in this first book it is an essential primer for the second. Raven Stratagem starts straight after the action of Ninefox Gambit. In the first book, Kel General Cheris was bonded with the disembodied personality of a crazy but extremely effective long dead general Jedao. At the start of Raven Stratagem, Jedao, on the run from his superiors, is fully in control of Cheris’s body and uses his rank to take over a battle fleet. It appears that he…

American War by Omar El Akkad
Literature , Review , Science Fiction / 29/06/2017

2017 seems to be the year of dystopias. The Handmaid’s Tale is on our screens and 1984 has rocketed back to the top of the bestseller list. But there are still plenty of authors looking for new ways to look at the present by considering a possible darker, grimmer future. Omar El Akkad’s American War follows the main events of the second American Civil War which takes place between 2075 and 2095 and is then followed by something much worse. American War opens in 2075. America has been ravaged by climate change and extreme laws relating to the use of fossil fuels have prompted four southern states – Missouri, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to secede from the union. South Carolina is devastated by a biological plague and walled off leaving the other three states (the MAG) to fight. Sara T Chestnut, who calls herself Sarat, and her twin sister are six when the war starts. They live outside of the MAG but when their father dies in a terrorist attack, the family ends up in a refugee camp in the MAG. The story follows the progress of the war and in particular Sarat’s radicalisation. The key to the success…

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

The first book of Ian McDonald’s Luna series, New Moon, started slowly but ended with a bang, an all-out attack on one of the five families that control the Moon. After this, readers might have expected McDonald to rest a little on his laurels, calm the pace down, and perhaps slowly build to another climax. But Wolf Moon is not that book. Early on is another massive destructive/action scene which blows any supposed status quo out of the water. And from that point things only get more intense with numerous pay-offs, twists and developments. As the reader keeps being reminded – there are a thousand ways to die on the moon – and McDonald seems intent on exploring all of them. McDonald’s Luna continues to be a masterful piece of world building while being respectful of his fictional predecessors there – particularly Robert Heinlein. Luna is a frontier, an “economic colony” where pretty much anything goes so long as the resources keep flowing. McDonald’s developing world sensibility continues to shine through the polyglot influence on Lunar culture of the five families who controlled those resources – Brazilian, Ghanaian, Russian, Chinese and Australian. McDonald explores this milieu through a large cast…

Closing Down by Sally Abbott
Review , Science Fiction / 21/06/2017

Sally Abbott’s Closing Down won the Richell Award, a prize given to emerging writers judged on the first three chapters and outline of an unpublished work. And Closing Down’s first three chapters effectively set the tone of the rest of the piece. The opening image particularly, of a large drunk man riding a small pony to death is a powerful and startling one and serves as a guiding metaphor for the whole (a metaphor with is unfortunately unpacked a few chapters later). Closing Down is set in a near future where climate change and economic breakdown has pushed Australia to start emptying its small rural towns and concentrating people into larger centres. This is part of a global movement to address the impacts of climate change and it is creating a global wave of refugees all being housed in massive new refugee centres. The narrative focusses on Clare, living in one of the Australian inclusion zones but struggling to get by, and Roberto an international journalist and his lover Ella who works in refugee resettlement. The tenuous connection between Roberto and Clare comes through Roberto’s grandmother, Granna Adams, who raised him and who takes Clare in when she is evicted….

The Barrier by Shankari Chandran
Review , Science Fiction , Thriller / 16/06/2017

There have not traditionally been many science fiction novels set in the developing world. This is starting to change with authors like Nnedi Okarofor, Ian McDonald and Paolo Bacigalupi. Joining them now is Australian author Shankari Chandran whose new science fiction novel The Barrier is set mainly in a post world war Sri Lanka. This is Chandran’s second novel, her first was also set in Sri Lanka, a country starting to feature more in Australian fiction such as the Rajith Savandasa’s recent debut Ruins. In 2040, the world is fifteen years on from a global religious war and Ebola pandemic which between them decimated populations and redrew the political map. The world is now divided into two sections – a Western Alliance and an Eastern Alliance. The sides are strictly divided with little travel or information flowing over the border. Both sides maintain strict vaccination protocols that prevent the resurgence of new strains of Ebola, but all of the vaccine comes from the West. It becomes apparent early on that the vaccine being used in the East is slightly different from that in the West, designed to prevent a re-emergence of the “sixth plague” – religion. The Eastern vaccine contains an extra strand…

Winter Halo by Keri Arthur
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 21/04/2017

Keri Arthur created a fairly complex urban fantasy world in City of Light, the opening volume in her Outcast series. That world which features a long running enmity between ‘shifters’ and humans alongside vampires, ghosts and interdimensional rifts that allowed destructive wraiths into the world. So despite some action, the first fifty pages or so of Winter Halo feel like a large, if necessary, recap to get readers back up to speed. Winter Halo once again focuses on Tiger, the last of a race of super soldiers created for long ago war between the shifters and the humans. Tiger is packed with biophysical and magical features – she was bred to gather intelligence by seducing the enemy, has super strength, can change her physical features, can rapidly heal herself and can read people’s minds particularly when she is having sex with them. Tiger is still trying to track down missing children, possibly being used in an experiment to create vampires who can move in daylight. The trail leads her and her companion Jonas, a shifter with whom there is piles of unresolved sexual tension, to the evil Winter Halo corporation. While advancing the story of the missing children, Winter Halo…

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

John Scalzi kicks off his new space opera series with a mutiny, gun running and the potential of space pirates. There is also plenty of exposition about hyperspace lanes known as the Flow but delivered with such verve that it is a joy to read. The mix of high concept science fiction and a slightly tongue in cheek tone should come as no surprise from the author who gave us both the Old Man’s War series and the award winning Redshirts. Scalzi is not backwards in building his universe from some fairly common tropes – there is an empire ruled by an emperox who is also head of the church and the most powerful trading guild, there are noble families, mainly also connected with trading guilds, and arcane trade relationships. The empire itself, known as the Interdependency is a bunch of planets that can only exist by relying on trade with each other facilitated by the mysterious and not well understood Flow lanes. But the Flow is breaking down, potentially isolating and condemning to failure, all of the interdependent outposts of the Empire. So that even before his scenario is fully understood, Scalzi has started to tear it all apart…

The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter
Review , Science Fiction / 19/04/2017

If you are going to call your book The Massacre of Mankind there had better be a massacre or you might find yourself up for false advertising. And while Stephen Baxter’s authorised sequel to The War of the Worlds has a second, bigger invasion and plenty of battles between man and Martian, this is not a book (thankfully, for mankind at least) that really lives up to its title. Massacre is written as a Wellsian, early-twentieth century sequel to the original. While it would not have been characterised as this back then, in modern terms it could be seen as a steampunk alternative history (where the branch is the unsuccessful 1907 invasion of England by Martians). Set in the 1920s, Massacre charts the second Martian invasion interrupting a war between Germany and Russia which Britain, scarred by the first invasion, has stayed out of. The setting comes complete with zeppelins, advanced technology based on stolen Martian knowhow and a supporting cast of luminaries including Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, George Patton and Wells himself (although never named). Besides Martians, Baxter also introduces beings from other planets including water-dwelling Venusians (shades here of last year’s far superior Radiance by Catherine Valente). Unfortunately,…