Top Five Science Fiction – 2017
Science Fiction , Top Fives / 11/12/2017

Some great science fiction reads in 2017 – here are five of the best (and three honourable mentions):   Claire G Coleman’ stunning debut Terra Nullius was speculative fiction that shone a new light on the colonisation of Australia.               John Scalzi created an empire just to start destroying it in the enjoyable space opera The Collapsing Empire.               Yoon Ha Lee continued to impress with Raven Stratagem, the mathematically-driven by deeply humanist sequel to last year’s standout debut Ninefox Gambit.           Becky Chambers also impressed with the follow up to her debut with A Closed and Common Orbit.               Ann Leckie gave us Provenance, a stand alone novel set in the same universe as her award winning Ancillary series.                 Honourable Mentions: Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyer Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

Unearthed by Kaufman and Spooner

Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner, together and separately have been staking out the science fiction corner of the young teen, young adult market. In the Illluminae Files, together with Jay Kristoff, Kaufman showed a willingness to recycle tried and tested science fiction tropes into a new format. Unearthed is a similar sort of hybrid – part Indiana Jones, part Tomb Raider, part Contact, part Arrival and part, well every science fiction novel that has humans exploring strange new worlds (with a dystopian back story that also involves a generation ship for good measure). And in the middle of it, two snarky, flirty, intelligent, likeable teens from opposite sides of the tracks who fall for each other while saving the day. An alien signal from a race called the Undying has opened the way to a barren planet called Gaia which contains potentially world-changing technology. Amelia is a sixteen-year-old scavenger who has gone to Gaia to find her fortune and Jules, slightly older, is a genius academic who wants to solve the riddle of the alien tombs. They meet cute and are forced to travel together. And while their attraction grows, they have to navigate a tomb by solving alien puzzles,…

Artemis by Andy Weir
Review , Science Fiction / 05/12/2017

With his debut, The Martian, such a success, there is plenty of expectation riding on Andy Weir’s second novel, Artemis. Artemis is also set in the near future, in space (on the Moon to be precise) and most of his characters seem a little too obsessed with science (or economics) but narratively Artemis is a very different beast to The Martian. Artemis is the name of the small lunar colony, home to Jasmine ‘Jazz’ Bashara, down on her luck and looking to make her fortune. Jazz keeps her head above water running contraband into the colony but very soon finds herself in the middle of an economic war for control of the aluminium smelter which, as a by-product, produces unlimited oxygen for the station. With sabotage, murder and organised crime in the mix, things start looking bad for Jazz until she takes her life, and the future of Artemis into her own hands. Given the number of big name science fiction authors who have successfully used the Moon as a setting, Weir has set himself a mammoth task from the outset. Artemis is a frontier town where almost anything goes and the law is often in the hands of the…

Nexus by Westerfeld, Lanagan and Biancotti

Nexus is the third and final instalment of the Zeroes trilogy which started with Zeroes and continued last year with Swarm. These books go boldly and with some originality into well explored territory – teens dealing with superpowers while also trying to make sense of their lives. At least, the first book did this. The second broadened out the world of the Zeroes, introduced a new menace and moved a little further away from a straight teens-with-powers scenario. Nexus expands this world even further and takes its protagonists out into the wider world. From its opening interrogation in, and rescue from, a supermax prison to a chase on the streets of Las Vegas, to its explosive finale on the streets of New Orleans. It is hard to talk about Nexus without some spoilers for the earlier two books. Suffice it to say that the six main Zeroes are back, in much more straightened circumstances due to the events of Swarm. But despite being on the run and fractured they still feel the need to use their powers for good as much as they can. And when they learn of “something big” going down in New Orleans involving a Zero called…

It Devours by Fink and Cranor
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 30/11/2017

Fans of the long running Welcome to Night Vale podcast will have been eagerly waiting the new novel from its creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. While the first Welcome to Night Vale novelisation felt like an extension of and introduction to the world of the podcast, It Devours is an experiment in something a little different. Nilanjana is a scientist who came to Night Vale four years earlier but is still considered an outsider. She meets Darryl, a proselytiser for the Church of the Smiling God, a bizarre newish religion which gave him a sense of community when his parents died. But as is always the case in Night Vale, something is not quite right. Pretty soon the town is facing an existential threat and the two come together to try and save Night Vale. While no prior knowledge of Night Vale is required, it certainly helps, and those in the know will get much more out the book. The narrative is partially based on a long running storyline, visits some well known Night Vale locales and features plenty of regular characters from the podcast. To enjoy the ride, those unfamiliar with the bizarre little town of Night Vale…

Strange Weather by Joe Hill
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 27/11/2017

With many short story collections, it is often instructive to read the author’s comments before diving in. At the front of Neal Gaiman’s recent collection Trigger Warning there was a general overview and then some insight into the genesis of each story in the collection. Joe Hill references Gaiman in his afterward where he talks about the idea behind this collection. And that reason is that after producing a couple of massive tomes (including 2016’s post-apocalyptic doorstop The Fireman) he wanted to get back to writing that was “lean and mean”. As he says, short novels are “all killer no filler”, and goes on to list some of his favourite authors at this length including Gaiman, David Mitchell and even HG Wells.  In Strange Weather, Hill has delivered four novellas which, if nothing else, serve as a great advertisement for his range. The four stories traverse a range of ideas and character and each is, in its own very different way, a killer.  The first story, Snapshot, starts out feeling very genre. Set mainly in 1988 it features A thirteen-year-old nerdy narrator (although the knowing narration itself comes from when he is an adult), a mysterious dark force that threatens him and people he loves. Possibly a bit of a Stranger Things vibe to it, which is not a bad thing. Hill effectively uses his horror tropes to…

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…