Space Opera Autor Catherynne Valente on the Out-of-this-World Appeal of Eurovision

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

If you follow Catherynne M. Valente on Twitter, you’ve probably seen her Tweeting about something called “Eurovision.” Even if you haven’t, you might have heard a little something about her book Space Opera being “Eurovision in space.”

Today, she joins us to explain what Eurovision is, why she loves it—and why you might already too, even if this is the first time you’ve heard the word.

If you live in America, you may have had trouble watching the Eurovision Song Contest this year (tomorrow is the last day). For three years, it broadcast here, and Americans slowly started to wake up to the utterly amazing spectacle already in progress across the pond, but not so in 2019.

I hope you will find a way to catch the finale; it is not to be missed. I have spent many years now trying to enlighten my countrymen to the glories of this glam rock Super Bowl of the Soul.

I won’t make my pitch here, except to say: it’s The X-Factor meets Miss Universe meets WWI and it is, in all its highs and lows, camp and class, tawdriness and tears, a must for life on Planet Earth. You can find my many longer pleas and exhortations elsewhere, and most passionately, in my Eurovision-in-space novel Space Opera.

I will say that, even if you are just hearing the word for the first time, and even if you live in America, you probably already know more about Eurovision than you think.

Eurovision is an engine for a certain genre of European pop music, and thus it makes its way over the pond in trickles and drips. ABBA is the most famous example; they won the contest in 1974, launching them into global stardom. Celine Dion won in 1988.

These are names everyone knows—but I can usually blow minds with the fact that the song “Cottoneyed Joe,” an wedding music staple in America, was in fact written by a Swedish band called Rednex who were later thrown out of Eurovision (representing Romania) for performing a song not specifically written for the event.

Household names, even here among the purple mountains majesty, including Olivia Newton-John, Englebert Humperdinck, Katrina and the Waves, t.A.T.u, and Bonnie Tyler, have all sung for various nations in the contest—some starting their careers, some ending them, some reaching for a bit of former glory.

Recently, it’s less the music than the spectacle that has seeped into American culture. Stephen Colbert has poked fun at it on his show; Will Farrell is working on a feature length parody for Netflix as we speak. With the rise of drag as a mainstream art form (Eurovision has long been a welcoming space for LGBT art and artists), images of Conchita Wurst, in full beard and full gown, appeared everywhere for a brief moment, though often without context. Social media lights up with discussion of the fashion and staging, even if the songs don’t often chart in the U.S. American acts have begun to perform during the judging interval, notably Justin Timberlake in 2015 and Madonna this year.

Bit by bit, Eurovision slowly arrives on our shores. And as Australia and other countries not, strictly speaking, part of Europe begin to participate, and Eurovision Asia threatens to actually happen some year or another, the august song contest comes closer and closer to being a global phenomenon. I have never thought America should participate—the concept of not voting for your own country would rub many of us the wrong way, and despite someone trying to do a honky-tonk song nearly every year, I’m not sure our musical tastes would fit with the in-crowd. We have enough cultural hegemony. Not every event has to include us.

But damn, we should be watching it. It will fill you up with absurdity and glitter and weirdness, give you a little hope for humanity, and leave you humming songs no one at your office has ever heard of for weeks.

Eurovision is life, Eurovision is love. It was invented to unify a war-torn continent and allow everyone to put aside politics in favor of, if only for a moment, art both high and low. There’s nothing more human and divine than that, little more necessary right now than that, and however you can access it, I’d recommend gluing yourself to the screen for the finale this weekend.

Catherynne M. Valente is the author of Space Opera, a, er, space opera inspired by Eurovision. It’s just as wonderful as you might imagine (not to mention a 2019 Hugo Award nominee).

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This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: A Lush Historical Epic, Humanistic Cyberpunk, and Myths Reimagined

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

The Prophet of the Termite God, by Clark Thomas Carlton
This long-in-coming sequel to Clark Thomas Carlton’s 2011 novel Prophets of the Ghost Ants continues the Antasy series, set in a world in which people have evolved to be the size of insects, and all of human culture, from what we eat, to what we wear, to how we wage war, has been influenced by our changed relationships with the insect world—even as people remain people, as prone as ever to scheming against and killing each other. In book two, the outcast and religious zealot Pleckoo, the Prophet-Commander of the Hulkrish army, launches a fresh assault against the newly formed nation of Bee-Jor,  led by his cousin, Anand the Roach Boy, and protected by an army of night wasps. Carlton weaves a web of intrigue, plots and counter-plots, and fierce battles, set against an imaginative world in the tradition of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series.

The Buying of Lot 37 & Who’s a Good Boy?, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
The newest entries in the Welcome to Night Vale series collect the scripts for episodes from seasons three and four of the megahit podcast, offering a fantastic deep dive into the creepy, funny, and super smart world of creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. In addition to a ton of behind-the-scenes tidbits from the writers and the cast, introductions to each story offer insight into their inspiration and production, and gorgeous illustrations from Jessica Hayworth bring each to visual life. The end result is a pair of books fans of the podcast will devour.

Pariah, by W. Michael Gear
Horror and military SF meet in the satisfying third book in Gear’s grim and gritty saga, following Outpost and Abandoned, returning to a dangerous alien world whose human colonists face a dual threat from both the planet’s indigenous carnivorous lifeforms and the corporate masters who exploit them. A survey ship is dispatched to the newly discovered planet carrying a crew of scientists led by the ecologist Dr. Dortmund Weisbacher; they are tasked with completing the first formal survey of the world to determine if it is fit for human habitation. But something goes wrong along the way: a journey expected to take years is over in an instant, and the ship arrives to find Donovan already very much inhabited. Corporate assassin Tamarland Benteen, stranded on the planet and eager to avoid running into the corporate bigwigs who would sooner see him dead, views the vessel as his best chance at escape. Caught between them are various colonists whose own dramas play out against the backdrop of a truly hostile world.


Mythic Journeys: Retold Myths and Legends, edited by Paula Guran
Award-winning editor Paula Guran’s latest anthology collects incredible adaptations and reinterpretations of myths and legends from the world over, penned by some of the best writers working in SFF today, including Neil Gaiman, Ann Lecki, Yoon Ha Lee, Ken Liu, and dozens more. These are stories that have existed for centuries—or longer—recast by modern-day masters, covering subjects like the Furies of old hunting down a serial killer for revenge, Odysseus’ nymph and her power to change lives, and a humorous look at chivalric myths and their absurdities. Spanning history and geography, culture and religion, these stories are uniquely inventive, making this a standout anthology.

A Brightness Long Ago, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Fantasy master Guy Gavriel Kay returns to the fictional setting of the Sarantine Mosiac, drawn from the history of Renaissance Italy, as an elderly man named Danio tells his life story, one curiously stocked with royalty and high adventure, considering his low birth. Danio starts off his career as an assistant to a court official, and is in a position to take notice of a young woman brought in as a concubine for the city’s despotic ruler. He correctly deduces she’s an assassin in disguise, and he chooses not to expose her; she is Adria, the daughter of a duke who has chosen to serve her mercenary uncle Folco. Danio’s decision to let the assassination occur sets in motion forces that will propel him and Adria in unexpected directions and lead to world-changing events, with low-born Danio, unpredictably, ever at their center. Kay applies his skill at painting sweeping historical tapestries to the story of the lives of the sort normally lost to the ages, yet whose choices may nevertheless shape the destiny of nations.

Last Tango in Cyberspace, by Steven Kotler
Judah “Lion” Zorn is an “em-tracker,” his hyperdeveloped sense of empathy and pattern recognition giving him the ability to trace cultural and linguistic shifts based on a larger connection to all living things. It’s a skill that makes him useful to the corporations that employ him to figure out how to launch their products and exploit new trends. But when a job for a pharmaceutical company leads to a bizarre murder scene, Lion finds himself at the center of a culture war involving an empathy drug, animal rights groups, mysterious disappearances, and a rather gruesome incident of taxidermy. At first all Lion wants to do is finish the job and get out, but his own empathic gifts and curiosity keep pulling him deeper in, forcing him to choose between slow social evolution and an explosive cultural revolt. With shades of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, bestselling non-fiction author Kotler’s second novel approaches cyberpunk cultural and anthropological perspective rather than a technological one, focusing on how the characters engage with their new world, rather than how the world changes due to the rapid acceleration of technological change.

The Undefeated, by Una McCormack
This slim novella packs an outsized punch as it follows the waning days of an aging journalist, Monica Greatorex, who once threatened to bring the powerful and corrupt to ruin across the Interstellar Commonwealth with her words, but now lives a much quieter life in retirement. Seeking a sembelance of peace, she travels to the planet where she spent her childhood, looking to reconnect with the past, but also for a place to wait out the coming of the jenjer, a race of genetically engineered servants who have rebelled against their human masters and are currently waging a planet-to-plat war of revenge across the Commonwealth. This isn’t necessarily the tale you expect from that setup—the battle never reaches Monica, and she makes no unexpected discoveries that will save humanity. Instead, it is a wistful story of a woman looking back across the book of her life, a story filled with both triumphs and sorrows, unchangeable. In poetic prose and 100-odd pages, McCormack creates characters you’ll feel for deeply, even as you wonder at the mysteries of the worlds they inhabit.

The Obsoletes, by Simeon Mills
Graphic novel author Simeon Mills (Butcher Paper) proves adept at prose in this clever debut novel, which marries sci-fi and themes of coming of age in high school. In the ’90s, twins Darryl and Kanga are typically angsty teens, except they are also robots: in this version of late-20th century America, a society to robots exists alongside our own, often hated and feared by flesh and blood types. After their robot “parents” disappeared, Darryl and Kanga have been on their own, with Darryl in charge of keeping their identities hidden from their “robophobic” neighbors—a tricky feat considering they don’t eat and bleed grease. Their cover story is threatened when Kanga discovers a love for basketball, and proves to be an inhumanly capable player, causing him to chafe against his brother’s cautious care-taking. But Darryl faces his own distractions in the form of a human girl. Like a science fictional Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Obsoletes gives the trials and travails of growing up a delightful genre twist.

Children of Ruin, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The sequel to the British Science Fiction Award-winning Children of Time returns to the unlikely new cradle of humanity, a colony planet whereupon a disastrous terraforming attempt resulted in the creation of a new society of uplifted ants and spiders whose civilization evolved at breakneck speed before the desperate remnants of the a ravaged Earth could arrive. Now unlikely allies, the humans and the insects catch fragmentary signals broadcast from light years away, suggesting there might be other survivors from their shared homeworld. A mixed expedition sets out to solve the mystery, but what’s waiting for them out in space is another calamity set in motion by long-dead Earth scientists’ arrogant and desperate efforts to ensure the survival of their species. Children of Ruin managed to completely deliver on a truly absurd premise, and the sequel offers similar pleasures.

The Window and the Mirror, by Henry Thomas
This engaging fantasy is the low-key debut novel from actor Henry Thomas (of E.T. fame), but it is no mere vanity publication. Assembling familiar elements into a nevertheless engaging and deeply readable adventure, Thomas introduces us to the land of Oesteria, ruled over by the powerful mages of the Magistry, who are always eager to expand the boundaries of their empire. They send an expedition to scout the lands of the Dawn Tribe, a largely peaceful people, but the party is attacked and its members scattered. One of them, the young Joth, is made a captive and forced to head off on a peacekeeping mission alongside a woman of the Dawn Tribe, while another, the dangerous Mage Imperator Ulhmet, escapes his captors and finds himself in the Goblin lands, where he designs to obtain dark magic that could be used to start a war. The first book in the Osteria and the War of Goblinkind series.

What new sci-fi & fantasy books are on your to-buy list?

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In Children of Ruin, Adrian Tchaikovsky Shows Us How You Top Super-Intelligent Spiders in Space

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Though Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, reads like a brilliant standalone hard sci-fi masterpiece, given the reception it received—the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and strong enough sales in the U.S. that a new publisher picked up the domestic rights—a follow-up seemed all but assured. That first millennia-spanning story of cryoships, human evolution, and weighing the pros and cons of a society ruled by cat-sized, hyper-intelligent spiders took a pulpy premise and, in the best tradition of sci-fi, turned it into something thoughtful and humane.

The sequel, Children of Ruin, has a lot to live up to, and it does just that: this novel is more than a match for its impressive predecessor.

At the outset, we’re confronted with another group of pioneers who’d set out from a most-likely doomed Earth in search of planets to be terraformed. These advance scouts seek out potentially livable worlds and begin the slow process of adapting them for human habitation. They are playing a very long game—the terraforming scientists will place themselves in cryo-sleep not only to endure long periods of interstellar travel, but also after they reach their destination planet and have triggered the terraforming process, which takes thousands of years, only awakening in intervals to monitor and adjust. If all goes according to plan, refugees from Earth will arrive to find a perfectly livable environment. Only the terraformers haven’t had any contact with Earth for quite some time, and when they arrive at their destination they find not one, but two worlds of interest: one they name Damascus, and which meets many of their criteria for habitability, save for the fact that it’s almost entirely ocean; and Nod, a terrestrial, Earth-like world already home to a thriving ecosystem, including a wide array of animal life.

This is the first signs of alien life encountered in this series (the bugs from the last book having been borne from our dying Earth), and while team leader Yusuf Baltiel recognizes that his mission is to prepare the way for future colonists, he’s also understandably averse to potentially wiping out the pre-existing life. He directs the team to study Nod while they focus on terraforming the water world, aided in his decision by one of the scientists on his team, Disra Senkovi, who has experience working with octopuses (yes, that’s the appropriate plural) as both pets and as potential assistants in underwater repairs. Senkovi has access to the same nanovirus that, in Children of Time, provided an accidental evolutionary boost to a colony of jumping spiders. Here, he’s using it in a tailored fashion to aid in developing a legion of cephalopod workers.

Meanwhile (though actually many centuries later; the mind-expanding scale of this novel matches its predecessor as well)) we check back in on the human/spider civilization as we left them at the end of the previous book: a cooperative blended crew has set out on a ship called Voyager. Though humans remain a tiny minority among the Portiid spiders, relations are relatively harmonious between two species. The ship’s intelligence consists of the remains of the uploaded mind of Avrana Kern, the brilliant but prickly scientist whose nanovirus inadvertently kickstarted the advanced spider society. Millions of trained ants provide various support functions, making for a truly multicultural crew.

When the ship encounters inexplicable and indecipherable signals from what is clearly an advanced civilization, the two plot two threads dovetail, and the crew of the Voyager discovers what became of that early terraforming team and their clever invertebrates. If you’re paying attention, you not that means we have as many as three, and possibly more, intelligent species in the mix, and as they do just that, Tchaikovsky takes full advantage of the opportunity to craft dramatic action set pieces—and has a great deal of fun with the potential complications of  a human/spider/octopus conflict while doing so.

Cephalopods are curious and intellectually nimble, even in their garden-variety present-day form. Though determinations of intelligence across species lines are fraught, and our own limitations bias us in analyzing the reasoning capacity of other life forms, octopuses consistently demonstrate that they’re among the smartest creatures on our planet—at least by our own standards. Certain types have demonstrated cooperation, tool use, and even playfulness. But for all that, they’re also incredibly alien. Intelligent behavior in apes isn’t tough for us to comprehend—they’re only a small step away on the evolutionary ladder. But seagoing invertebrates with eight semi-autonomous appendages who communicate through color, texture, and gesture? Thats a wildly different proposition.

As in the previous book’s exploration of spider culture, Tchaikovsky has set himself a unique challenge here: science fiction aliens are generally subject entirely to the imagination of an author—they may or may not be subject to the rules of science as they exist on Earth, and their developments are largely limited only by the laws of story. Not so with cephalopods, creatures that exist in the here-and-now. Though they are subjected to the uplift virus that quickened the evolution of the portiid jumping spiders, neither Disra Senkovi nor Tchaikovsky spend much time on its influence—their development is augmented only in small and specific ways, largely because they are already smart enough that they don’t need much help. Just a little push. Once they’re given access to tools tailored for their bodies, they’re able to interface with human technology relatively quickly.

Tchaikovsky approaches the development of this new underwater superpower with an eye toward believability: there are plenty of perfectly entertaining stories to be told about intelligent spacefaring cephalopods, but the author displays a preference for thoughtful consideration—what would an advanced octopus society look like?—that quickly moves the novel from the realm of pulp sci-fi into something approaching inevitability. Of course these creatures will one day go to space, and they’ll be more than a match for us when they do. With a wonderfully nerdy precision, he’s considered the ways in which octopuses might communicate across great distances, how their use of water as a tool might apply to mining, and even the particular dangers inherent in water-filled ships cruising through the cold of space. As in Children of Time, Tchaikovsky’s ability to seriously envision the seemingly outlandish scenario is marvelous.

Children of Ruin improves and expands upon all of the things that its predecessor did so well, and more: now juggling multiple disparate forms of intelligence, he must not only consider how humans and cephalopods might interest, but how cephalopods might interact with super-intelligent spiders. In the background, he creates a rather charmingly cohesive human/spider/ant crew overseen by the intelligence of an egomaniacal dead scientist. And atop all of that, the plot hinges on an encounter another entirely new form of life, suggesting new complications, on the world of Nod. Amidst the human folly and civilizational conflicts of this series, it’s a discovery that prompts a rather wonderful vision of unlikely friendship.

More to the point: such weird, disparate, and very big ideas have no business working together—certainly humans, spiders, and ants don’t make for natural allies. But, somehow, a story about brainy space octopuses in conflict with giant spiders is not only smart and thoughtful, but comes to feel oddly plausible. And, for all its conflict, it offers a reminder that unlikely cooperation might be our only hope. In that sense, it isn’t just an engaging space opera, but a work of genius one better.

Children of Ruin is available May 14.

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10 Noir Protagonists in Sci-Fi & Fantsy Books Even Weirder than Detective Pikachu

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If your first thought upon seeing the trailer for Detective Pikachu (in theaters today, pika pika!) was something along the lines of “wait, Pikachu is a detective now?” you obviously need to read more speculative noir fiction (or play more video games, but this is a book blog).

Science fiction, fantasy, and noir work so well together, we can easily rattle off  dozens of examples of amazing books that blend them extremely well—and not a few of them include… unexpected creatures (not to mention other forms of life) chasing down clues and two-fisting their way to the truth. As usual, SFF leads the way in representation, arguing that we should let go of our anti-dinosaur, anti-cat, and anti-monster prejudices and admit that any sentient being, from s robot to a chickens, can be a kick-butt detective. Here are 10 books that make our case.

The Nursery Crime Series, by Jasper Fforde
Jack Spratt, of Mother Goose Fame
The Big Over Easy was reportedly the first novel Fforde wrote; rumor has it that he stuck it in a drawer when he failed to sell it, then rewrote it entirely in the wake of the success of his Thursday Next novels. We’re glad he did, because the Nursery Crimes books are delightful and whimsical—naturally, as they are set in the shared world of nursery rhymes. But they’re also really good mysteries, investigated by none other than Jack Spratt—also known as the man who would eat no fat and Jack the Giant Killer—and his partner at the Nursery Crime Division, Mary Mary. This Jack is deathly allergic to fat and has a dark compulsion to murder giants, but that just makes him an ideally flawed detective, really. His first big case is the murder of Humpty Dumpty, who is found shattered to death, with all the clues pointing to his wife—who conveniently committed suicide immediate afterwards. The fact that this ideal noir scenario is being investigated by famous nursery rhyme characters gives Fforde the opportunity to unload his trademarked high-caliber punnage and unload his literary reference-fueled joke machine, all while ladling on the traditional noir flourishes.

The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse, by Robert Rankin
Teddy Bear
Humpty Dumpty gets it again—it’s hard to avoid being typecast when you’re most famous for dying, after all—in Rankin’s fever dream of a novel set in Toy City, where nursery rhymes and sentient toys live and love and brawl and commit terrible, terrible crimes. Eddie is our detective here, a ragged teddy bear on the trail of a serial killer murdering nursery rhyme characters and leaving chocolate bunnies behind as a trademark. Rankin clearly enjoys wallowing in the grimiest aspects of noir, trowing his toys and nursery rhyme creatures right down into the gutter, but that this is another book with language ripe with puns and peppered with literary references both hilarious and profane transforms it from a solid mystery into something even better.

The Imaginary Corpse, by Tyler Hayes
A Tiny, Imaginary Triceratops
Noir detectives favor a certain fatalistic hopelessness—they’re well aware of the pointlessness of chasing justice, but they do it anyway. Hayes nails that tone in the midst of what may be 2019’s weirdest premise: on an island where beloved but abandoned ideas—like imaginary friends—go to live when the people who dreamed them up move on, Trippy the triceratops investigates cases on behalf of his fellow forgotten ideas. Once the imaginary friend of a lonely girl, Trippy lives on in the Stillreal, traumatized and bitter in the best noir tradition. When Trippy stumbles onto The Man in the Coat, a nightmarish creature able to permanently delete unwanted ideas, he’ll have to push past his own tragedy and solve the case before everything in the Stillreal dies for, uh, real. Many of us once had at least one imaginary friend, and perhaps those of us who have later wondered where that friend went. Why wouldn’t they become embittered gumshoes in the strange realm between reality and oblivion?

Anonymous Rex, by Eric Garcia
A Human-Sized Velociraptor
Let’s get the heavy lifting out of the way: in the alternate reality Garcia imagines, dinosaurs didn’t go extinct millions of years ago. Instead, they evolved into smaller forms, and now live among humans in disguise. One of those dinosaurs is Vincent Rubio, a velociraptor making his living as a private investigator, and as down on his luck as any classic noir protagonist. When he lucks onto a fresh case he’s eager for a payday, but quickly finds himself swimming in murky waters as he chases down clues that suggest a vast conspiracy involving genetic experimentation and interspecies romance (yup). What’s great about Garcia’s approach is that he doesn’t skimp on the mystery or noir elements, playing it all very straight; you might find yourself occasionally forgetting that the detective you’re rooting for is actually a dinosaur.

The Caves of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
The Robot Avatar of a Murder Victim
This Isaac Asimov classic was one of the first books to brilliantly merge sci-fi and detective fiction, with the clever twist that one of the detectives working the case is a robot beholden Asimov’s famous Three Laws. R. Daneel Olivaw is a robot in a future society where tensions and prejudice—between earth-bound humans, so-called Spacers in the outer worlds, and the Spacers’ robot companions—runs rampant, making the involuntary partnership between Daneel and human detective Elijah Bailey instantly fraught. Making it yet more so? Daneel was created in the image of the murder victim whose death they’re trying to solve. While the story is a tad dated in its language and themes, Asimov was a good enough writer to make it easy to ignore the stuff that’s become a bit wonky over time. After all, since every other job will eventually be outsourced to automation, why not detective work?

The Raymond Electromatic Series, by Adam Christopher
A Robot with No Memory
Speaking of robots, what about Raymond Electromatic, the Electric Detective, and the last operational robot in 1960s Los Angeles? Here’s Ray’s wrinkle: he has a 24-hour memory limit, and though he wears the trenchcoat of a noirish private eye, he’s really an assassin, taking orders from his secretary—a supercomputer named Ada, who fills him in on what he’s forgotten every day. Ray has no choice but to trust Ada, even though he suspects she’s often working from her own agenda. It’s retro science fiction meets murder mystery meets a hardboiled crime novel, and the combo works like a perfectly ordered punchcard calculating machine. The 24-hour memory limit adds a clever twist to that hoary old mystery staple amnesia, and helps make Ray—already the last of his kind, and hated by much of flesh-and-blood society—a tragic hero in the tradition of the best noir detectives, determined to solve the case even if he won’t remember he did it in the morning.

The Obama-Biden Series, by Andrew Shaffer
Detectives: The Former President and Vice-President
Admit it, you want it to be true—you want to discover that upon leaving office, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden turned to solving crimes as if they were in a 1980s buddy-cop TV show. Proving that true noir detectives can be anything—Pokémon, imaginary dinosaurs, and, yes, former presidents—Shaffer leans hard into the banter and buddy-cop chemistry as he imagines the two plunging into the dark underbelly of modern-day America. Biden kicks off the investigation when one of his favorite train conductors (never forget: Biden is often referred to as “Amtrak Joe”) is killed, but the case quickly leads Obama and his former VP to a plot involving the opioid catastrophe strangling the country, leading to some surprising—but wholly satisfying—butt-kicking on the part of the two popular politicians.

Embry, by Michael Allen Rose
Unjustly Accused Rooster
If you want weird and unusual, you can’t go wrong wandering over the the bizarro section of the bookstore, where you’ll find this incredible tale of a rooster named Embry who finds himself framed for the murder of the most famous egg of all time. The egg and chicken puns fly fast and furious as Embry desperately investigates the seamy world of Kingswall. For a rooster, the protagonist is the perfect noir hero—cynical, bitter, darkly hilarious and not above violence, blackmail, and fisticuffs in pursuit of his goals. But, yes, he’s a chicken. Rose does a fantastic job with his off-the-wall worldbuilding, the end result being a much more compelling mystery than you might expect from a book about chickens and eggs.

Three Bags Full, by Leonie Swann
A Flock of Sheep
No one said your noir detective had to be a single character. Or human. Swann’s remarkable book kicks off when a shepherd in Ireland is murdered and his flock of sheep take it upon themselves to solve the crime. The sheep roll with a marvelous attitude—a combination sweet-natured optimism and cowardly herd mentality they battle continuously to overcome in their efforts to solve the crime. Swann works a lot of wonderful criticism of humanity in with her story of the wooly truth-seekers, especially once they start making headway and realize the murder involves a much larger swatch of the local human population than originally suspected. Potential for silliness aside, it is a surprisingly engaging mystery.

The Joe Grey Series, by Shirley Rosseau Murphy
A Talking Cat?!
The moment we started talking unusual detectives, you knew we were eventually going to mention a cat, didn’t you? Joe Grey isn’t just any cat, he’s a cat with the inexplicable ability to understand and speak to humans. Joe isn’t exactly thrilled about this fact, as he worries it will impede his ability to nap in sunbeams. But when he witnesses a murder and is forced to run for his nine lives, he must subsequently figure out how to solve the case before the killer tracks him down. The reasons for this series’ longevity are numerous: Murphy balances his mysteries with character work that turns a talking cat into a believable detective. These are books that work as hard-boiled crime stories—with all the gritty violence that defines the genre—despite (or because of) their most unusual protagonist.

What other unusual detectives in SFF have we missed?

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6 Essential Works by 2019 SFWA Grand Master William Gibson

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During next week’s Nebula Award weekend, venerable science fiction writer William Gibson will be honored as the 35th Damon Knight Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

It’s a pretty huge deal: he joins such genre luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Peter S. Beagle, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Samuel R. Delany in recognition of his lifelong contribution to SFF literature. After bursting onto the scene with Neuromancer in 1984—a debut that went on to pick up both the Hugo and the Nebula—he’s maintained a metronome-steady career, putting out a new novel every three to four years while penning music reviews and critical essays, short fiction, screenplays, and comics on the side.

Gibson’s fiction has always been close to my heart. Burning Chrome, his short story collection from 1986, was pressed into my hands a few years after it was first published, and it rewred my brain. I was in high school at the time, at a humdrum school in the Midwest, and I simply couldn’t believe how grimy-sleek and techno-cool were the worlds he imagined. His work felt so different from the other science fiction I was reading at the time—Asimov, Herbert, the usual suspects—thickly urban, technologically stunning, displaying a weird mix of airless opulence and grubby street charm. I moved on to Neuromancer and immediately became a fan for life; its sequels and followup series spooled out across the years, and each was immediately downloaded into my central cortex, rewriting the code of my existence. Gibson is the first writer I followed from book to book, waiting to love whatever he wrote next.

With that context in mind, here are six essential books in William Gibson’s impressive catalog.

The first sentence of Gibson’s first novel is oft-cited alongside other perfect opening lines: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

It was only a few years ago (during my umpteenth reread) that I realized that one of the possible meanings of this line is a literal one: the port is covered with interlocking geodesic domes, a shining domed city run to ruin, speckled with broken panels that let the rain in. The ur-text of cyberpunk follows low level criminal and console cowboy Henry Case as he gets in over his head with street samurai, razorgirls, cloned daughters of industrialist royalty, and the best-laid plans of two inscrutable artificial intelligences. Invented slang generally doesn’t age well, but the tech patois of Neuromancer holds up, partially because it influenced how we speak and think about our new digital reality.

Burning Chrome
Though it has passed out of common parlance, for a long time we referred to the internet as “cyberspace,” a term that was coined in a short story featured in this collection and gained more traction when it reappeared in Neuromancer. (Due to the vagaries of publishing dates, the short story “Burning Chrome” was published first in Omni in 1982, two years before Neuromancer, but only widely republished in this collection two years after that.) Burning Chrome includes one of my top five favorite short stories ever: “The Gernsback Continuum”, about a phtotojournalist who begins hallucinating the futurism of the past superimposed upon the present. This is a wonderful collection of short fiction, full up with brio sketches of the people and places Gibson will become best known for; a cyberpunk grimoire.

Fun facts: Two of its stories were adapted into films: New Rose Hotel, which stars Christopher Walken, Asia Argento, and Willem Defoe (if you can believe it) and Johnny Mnemonic, which stars Keanu Reeves, Dolph Lundgren, and Ice-T. The latter is worth seeking out for its high camp value, delivered via a screenplay by Gibson himself. The author has written for the screen several times, and some of his scripts were even filmed, including two episodes of The X-Files during its pop culture heyday, while some which were not—though his unused script for the third Alien movie will soon be reimagined as an audio drama. (Apparently the only detail from his script that made it to the screen? The barcode tattoos that appear on the backs of the prisoners’ necks.)

The Difference Engine (with Bruce Sterling)
In The Difference Engine, Gibson and Sterling twisted cyberpunk into something both new and old, imagining the intrusion of various disruptive technologies well before they were culturally widespread. Which is to say: its Victorians have developed punch-card computers they use in the service of typically Victorian notions of class and criminality, like they would, those stuffy Victorians. It was here I first encountered Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, and the mathematician considered by some to be the first programmer. And thus, steampunk was born. (Gibson’s most famous aphorism—“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed”—holds true even in the past.) As a novel, The Difference Engine maybe isn’t the most compelling, but the ideas, man. The ideas.

All Tomorrow’s Parties
All Tomorrow’s Parties, which takes it name from a Velvet Underground song, is the culmination of Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, which aptly enough centers on the eponymous Bay Bridge, which has been commandeered as a sort of vertical, spanning shantytown in the wake of earthquakes that decimated both California and Tokyo. The book collects the disparate people and themes of the previous two novels into a loose slipknot of an ending. Gibson’s finales don’t tend to the explosive, and a common complaint is that they end inconclusively. But I think his endings are more like creeper highs, best appreciated at a bit of a remove, after they’ve had time to expand in your mind. One of the endings within All Tomorrow’s Parties has stayed with me for years, for so long that I eventually had my own private name for what in the hell he was doing, and what it meant to me. Gibson really is a visionary, though I suspect that label would annoy him.

Pattern Recognition
Pattern Recognition marked a sea-change in Gibson’s fiction, pulling back from the techno-future to the almost present. Heretofore, much of his fiction seemed set 20 minutes into the future, riding technology and its warping effects into near-future almost-nows. Pattern Recognition, instead, is on the bleeding edge of the then-present, which still feels like our now, detailing technologies out of the reach of the average human, but not impossible or unheard of. I think it is the first novel I read after 9/11 that incorporated the fall of the Twin Towers into its overt plot: main character Cayce Pollard’s CIA spook dad vanished after the attack, like he simply couldn’t exist in a post-9/11 world. There’s some winking to his first trilogy: Cayce pronounces her name like Neuromancer‘s own Henry Case. But Cayce lives in the here and now, in the unevenly distributed present. (And, speaking of the Bleeding Edge, there’s some back and forth between Pattern Recognition and the works of post-modern master Thomas Pynchon, but that’s a whole other rabbit hole to explore.)

The Peripheral
After completing the Blue Ant trilogy, which takes place in the here-and-now-ish, The Peripheral strikes back out into not just one, but two futures. The Peripheral is also the first Gibson novel to take on the post-apocalyptic themes, at least overtly. (One could certainly argue that the Sprawl is at the most basic a mid-apocalyptic hellscape, though that might be semantics.) It shifts forward and more forward in time, from before the vague occurrence of the cataclysm called the Jackpot, to after, in a largely empty world. After the almost comforting familiarity of his proceeding books, The Peripheral felt like a leap into the black both structurally and thematically, experimental in ways I hadn’t quite seen before in Gibson’s work. I can’t wait to see what he does when he returns to its setting in Agency, which will be partially set in an alternate timeline in which Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential election. The book is currently scheduled for release in January 2020, though it has been delayed a few times already. Planning the future—more than one, actually—takes time, you know.

Honorable mentions

Distrust That Particular Flavor
This work of non-fiction collects several decades’ worth of Gibson’s essays—everything from a late ’80s musing about the future of “the Net” (remember when we called it that?) to his thoughtful writing about music and literature. Though he’s not as prone to essaying in his fiction as some other cyberpunk authors (*cough* Neal Stephenson), he’s not bad at the form.

Archangel (co-written by Michael St. John Smith, with art by Butch Guice, Alejandro Barrionuevo  and Wagner Reis)
Gibson’s only foray into comics to date. There’s something of a genre joke in the setup: Junior Henderson goes back in time and kills his grandfather, only to replace him. This premise might be is one of the hoariest old chestnuts of time travel fiction, so naturally, Gibson duly blows it to pieces, as he does.

William Gibson will be honored with the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award during this year’s Nebula Awards weekend, May 16-19, 2019.

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This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: A Magical Manhattan Murder Mystery, a Return to Osten Ard, and Mercy’s Promise Kept

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Westside, by W.M. Akers
In an alternate 1920s Manhattan in which a heavily fortified wall running along Broadway divides the island into Eastside, where the normal laws of reality still apply, and Westside, where things have gone down the magical drain, the latter has become a magical wasteland where only the dregs of society—criminals, artists, and drunks—remain. Gilda Carr calls Westide home, and works as a private investigator specializing in bite-sized mysteries like recovering lost gloves. Somehow, though, her latest case pushes her into a gangland war that connects to her own long-missing father and the reason for the Westside’s descent into unreal chaos. As much as she might like to, Carr can’t sidestep the responsibility she suddenly feels to get to the bottom of both mysteries, for her own sake and that of everyone living in the magic-ravaged city. Akers’ hugely enjoyable debut marries inventive alt-history with truly strange magic and a protagonist you won’t soon forget.

The Warship, by Neal Asher
The sequel to The Soldier and the second book in the Rise of Jain series, set within the operatic expanse of Neal Asher’s Polity Universe. Orlandine has been tasked with protecting the Polity from the threat of the ancient technology of a civilization known as the Jain, currently housed in an accretion disc surrounding a dead star, and plans to use a weaponized black hole to destroy it. Her actions are met with suspicion, and the mobilization of fleets of warships by both the artificial intelligences that govern the Polity and a faction of the alien Prador Kingdom. As the black hole does its work, other secrets hidden within the disc begin to be revealed, suggesting that Orlandine;s actions may have been orchestrated by a far deadlier power. Asher writes big, bold space opera in the vein of Iain M. Banks; he’s well-known in his native U.K. and deserves a larger audience this side of the pond.

Storm Cursed, by Patricia Briggs
Patricia Briggs delivers the 11th Mercy Thompson novel with the fierce energy of a promise kept—literally. When we last left her in Silence Fallen, Coyote shapeshifter Mercy pledged that she and her pack would protect the people living in their territory, thinking at the time that doing so would involve hunting the occasional zombie goat or running off some goblins. Instead she finds that her declaration has made her land a Neutral Zone where humans feel safe treating with the fae, leading to more complications than she can handle safely. As the humans and the Gray Lords of the fae jockey for position in the developing conflict, Mercy knows the safe thing to do would be to stay out of it—but she made a promise, and she and her pack are going to keep it.

Exhalation, by Ted Chiang
It’s difficult to undersell Ted Chiang’s standing in the science fiction field; long before his “Story of Your Life” was made into the Academy Award-winning blockbuster Arrival, he was lauded in genre circles for crafting stories an innovative with their science as they are heartfelt in their consideration of human emotion. Only his second collection, following 2002’s Story of Your Life and Others, Exhalation brings together seven previously published stories (several long enough to be classified as novelettes or novellas) and two new ones; each is a finely cut gem. “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (a Hugo-winner for Best Novelette) is a standout, a complex mix of fantasy and time travel tropes that unfolds with mathematical precision, but the most powerful entry may be the title tale, which turns the fate of a strange race of mechanical beings into a powerful allegory for the crisis of climate change. Truly essential reading.

By Demons Possessed, by P.C. Hodgell
P.C. Hodgell has been writing books in the Kencyrath series for decades, slowly building an expansive imagined universe. In this ninth full-length novel, primary protagonist Jame Knorth approaches a final reckoning with Perimal Darkling, the force that has dogged her kind, the Kencyr, across centuries and vast distances. Just when it appears the Kencyr might be able to finally defeat their old foe, Jame learns of an upheaval within the city of Tai-tastigon, where she was shaped as a leader of her people. Gods and demi-gods, missing souls and disappearing shadows, and “demon-wrought madness”: it’s up to Jame to deal with it all.

Snakeskins, by Tim Major
Seventeen-year-old Caitlin Hext is a Charmer, one with the ability to rejuvenate by producing a clone every seven years. These clones usually soon disintegrate, but following her first “shedding ceremony,” Caitlin finds that hers inexplicably do not, forcing her to question her own identity and her family’s place in the genetic legacy of their kind. Soon, she begins to realize she is but one small piece of an ever-widening government conspiracy that involves all citizens of Britain, regular humans and Charmers alike. It’s an unusual setup for an intricate political thriller that coils in on itself, tightening the tension as it circles toward satisfyingly shocking answers.

Octavia Gone, by Jack McDevitt
The mystery at the center of the reliably entertaining eighth Alex Benedict novel centers around a space station, the Octavia, that disappeared while the scientists aboard it were studying a nearby black hole. An artifact of possibly alien origin might be the key to solving the mystery, if only far-future antiquities dealer Alex Benedict and his uncle Gabe can retrieve it for study. If that isn’t enough, Gabe, recently returned from space and a stint in a time warp, has been declared dead due to timey-wimey shenanigans, and Alex and his pilot Chase Kolpath have already made progress adjusting to life without him. They all soon learn that the question of the Octavia might hinge on a love affair gone bad—or an alien plot. The clues lead them out into space once more, and toward what might be the greatest archaeological discovery of all time.

Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire’s latest and longest work is also her best: a structurally complex, richly written, deeply imagined fantasy about the bonds that can unite two souls even across vast distances. One day, young Roger Middleton is struggling with his math homework when the voice of a girl named Dodger Cheswich pipes up in his head, giving him the answers. Roger and Dodger some discover that though they live on opposite coasts, they can communicate with one another, and develop a strange sort of friendship. What they don’t know is that they’re the end result of an experiment begun in the late 19th century by alchemist Asphodel Baker who dreamed of rewriting reality by embodies the forces of creation into living hosts, a plan she encoded in a series of children’s books. Her creation and eventual murderer, a man named James Reed, took up her work and engineered Roger and Dodger’s births as one half each of the Doctrine of Ethos, the force that holds existence together. As the twins mature, Reed seeks to control them and implement the final stage of Baker’s masterwork, but their connection has made them powerful, and difficult to control. With the rules of the game set, the children must awaken to their shared destiny and shape a reality that will ensure their survival, not to mention the continued existence of the universe.

Million Mile Road Trip, by Rudy Rucker
The legendary weird sci-fi auteur Rudy Rucker returns with his first book in five years, a suitably mind-bending, transreal novel that takes mutates a classic road-trip structure into a wacky sci-fi adventure for the ages. About to graduate high school and facing the drudgery of adult life, Zoe Snapp sets off on a roadtrip with her crush, surfer Villy Antwerpen, in his somewhat trusty ride (nicknamed the purple whale) and along the way inadvertently opens a portal to another dimension, through which aliens promptly arrive. The aliens deliver the duo to a parallel universe where Zoe and Villy discover that sentient flying saucers intend to invade their own in order to absorb humanity’s consciousness, which is their sustenance. It’s up to Zoe, who hasn’t even graduated yet, and Villy (who’s failing math) to venture across a million miles of new dimensions into order to defeat them before it’s too late. Packed with heady math and physics, written in the style of Kerouac, with plot twists aplenty and symbolism right out of Pynchon, it’s a head trip that’s even weirder than it sounds.

Theater of Spies, by S.M. Stirling
The second book in Stirling’s Alternate War series finds scientist Ciara Whelan and Luz O’Malley—a leading agent of President Teddy Roosevelt’s elite spy network Black Chamber—resting after their recent efforts to foil a German terrorist plot. As World War I looms, intelligence comes in about a devastating new weapon the Germans are developing—and the Black Chamber requires they cut their recuperation short to once again serve their country. They go undercover as the world erupts into conflict, heading to Berlin and pursued by a legendary German agent called Imperial Sword, who leads a pack of stormtroopers commanded by Ernst Röhm.

The Gordian Protocol, by David Weber and Jacob Holo
Weber and Holo serve up a time-twisty standalone adventure that crackles with a thriller’s energy. Professor Ben Schröder has suffered a psychotic episode that left him with a whole second set of memories of a world where the Holocaust occurred and nuclear weapons threaten mankind’s survival. He’s learned to compensate for these nightmarish visions until a man named Raibert Kaminski shows up at his door and announces himself a time traveler from an alternate reality. Kaminski drops a bombshell: a chronological disaster is threatening the existence of 15 separate realities and has given rise to a tyrant who uses time travel technology to solidify his power. As Schröder struggles with his sense of reality and sanity, Kaminski hits him with the real body blow: he, Ben Schröder, is the key to it all—and he faces a choice that puts the fate of entire realities in his hands.

A Chain Across the Dawn, by Drew Williams
The second book in Drew Williams’ Universe After space opera series, following 2018’s The Stars Now Unclaimed, delivers another fast-flying, wildly imagined, cheekily humorous adventure. Three years ago, Esa left her ho-hum planet to join the Justified, a group that gathers together children with mystical abilities in the hopes of uniting them against the Pulse, a force with the power to destroy technology across the inhabited galaxy. Esa and her colleague Jane are on the hunt for others of her kind, and on their latest retrieval mission, they learn they aren’t the only ones. Someone—or something—else is seeking these special children for unknown purposes, and it’s up to Esa and Jane (and their new recruit, a young boy named Sho) to find answers before the galaxy loses its one reliable defense against the Pulse.

Empire of Grass, by Tad Williams
The solution to the mystery of the Witchwood Crown continues to elude King Simon and his queen, Miriamele in this second book of Williams’ Last King of Osten Ard series trilogy. As the kingdoms of Osten Ard descend separately into war, division, and strife, the Crown might be the key to it all—if Simon and Miriamele can solve the puzzle. Meanwhile, the Queen of the Norns has made a deal to bring her immortal armies into the mortal lands, the nomads on the grasslands are unifying with cult-like fervor, and everything begins to fall apart in ways large and small as a disparate group of people fighting for their own survival in the chaos come to represent the only hope for the survival of all living things. We’re happy to say once again that thus far, the followup to Williams’ landmark Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy is more than living up to the reputation of its forebear.

Noir Fatale, edited by Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell
As countless stories of space investigators and half-fae detectives have proven, noir tropes fit in unusually well with the general milieu of sci-fi and fantasy. That fact is certainly in evidence in this new anthology edited by Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell, which collects 13 noir-ish SFF from veteran and up-and-coming authors, including Correia himself, Laurell K. Hamilton (writing in her Anita Blake urban fantasy series), David Weber, Sarah A. Hoyt, and more, each of whom puts their own spin on the familiar notion of the femme fatal.

What new sci-fi & fantasy books are on your list this week?

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Middlegame Is a Coming-of-Age Story to End the World

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Middlegame, the genre-blending new novel from prolific, bestselling, and much-awarded author Seanan McGuire, pivots on the realization of a long-running alchemical dream: one woman’s quest to incarnate the forces of the universe within a pair of siblings. It reads, meanwhile, like a unique alchemical blend of its creator’s prolific career: a bit of fantasy, a bit of sci-fi, shot through with melodrama and metafiction, and packaged as a mind-bending, time-altering, blood-soaked thriller.

As proof, for this is a novel concerned about showing its work, consider its component parts.

Brilliant but tragically female, considering she was born into the Victorian era, Asphodel Baker was an alchemist with answers for which the world was not ready. Her plan to embody the ancient Pythagorean Doctrine of Ethos was ahead of its time, so she set in motion a chain of events to see it come to fruition even long after she was gone.

Central to that plan was the creation of a series of children’s books outlining the keys to unlocking her vision, written in a code known only to Asphodel and her successors. That might sound familiar to readers of the Parasitology series, published under McGuire’s Mira Grant pseudonym, in which the the central truth about a rogue tapeworm epidemic is found in lines from an obscure children’s novel.

Middlegame‘s central storyline begins a century after Asphodel’s discovery and decades after her death, focusing on the culmination of her scheme via the work of the villainous debonair James Reed, her Frankenstein’s Monster of an apprentice who slew his maker and carried on her work.

Reed is closer than ever to rewriting reality, now breeding sets of twins destined to embody one half the doctrine each. The pairs include a mathematically gifted twin, and one with a way with words, each one half of a whole that, when united, could manifest and remake the universe. James has failed in his mission many times, but he’s getting closer, and regardless, he doesn’t bother himself with eliminating his failed experiments, even when they are living, breathing children.

Enter Roger and Dodger, one such set of twins, separated at birth to develop their unique traits on their own, until the moment when their minders are ready for them to come together. But Roger, a word wizard, and Dodger, the math genius, have a hard time staying apart. Through a telepathic connection, they inadvertently find each other in childhood, and despite the strangeness of looking out of one another’s eyes and speaking to one another from opposite coasts, they form an instant bond, each serving as the other’s pen pals, imaginary friend, and ersatz sibling off and on throughout childhood and adolescence.

On their own, Roger and Dodger are misfits, lopsided geniuses in a world not built for them; in finding each other, they blossom. Torn apart on more than one occasion (often through the intervention of James Reed and his inhumanly pragmatic followers, they continue to find their way back to the other in a narrative that zigs wherever you think it might zag. Soulmates, in the truest sense of the word. It’s reminiscent of McGuire’s Wayward Children series and, in particular, the rules of the Goblin Market, the portal world setting of in In an Absent Dream, in which every act has a price, and every favor creates a debt. (There are also hints of McGuire’s urban fantasy heroine October Daye and her “twin” May in this funhouse-mirror of a sibling relationship.)

In this bildungsroman to the apocalypse, Roger and Dodger mature, both separately and together, learning along the way that their respective prowess in languages and mathematics belie far more potent, earth-moving power. Their story jots in and out of timelines and from one point-of-view to another as the two peel away layers of deceit to learn who—or what—they truly are. The ultimate realization is more than simply jarring for brother and sister; it’s also dangerous—Reed and his horror-show are willing to go to extreme lengths to maintain control over subjects to which they’ve given, literally, all the power in the world.

The mood is tense, the stakes are unimaginable, and the consequences are frequently horrific. Middlegame cranks up the tension McGuire displayed in the zombie-fueled mayhem of the Newsflesh series (again, penned under the Mira Grant alter ego) and breaks the dial doing it.

In turns, this novel, this tragic, triumphant novel, will break your brain and your heart, as Roger and Dodger’s relationship ebbs and flows, and they come to grips with their grander destinies even as they navigate the painful intimacy of their unimaginable sibling bond. You’ll want to pay attention as you read it, and read it again—perhaps taking careful notes as you do—because Middlegame is the finest work to date from an author of consistently fine works.

Middlegame is available May 7.

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Blogging the Nebulas: The Calculating Stars Thrillingly Reimagines the Space Race

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Editor’s note: The Nebula Awards are often described as the Academy Awards of SFF literature. Like the Oscar, the Nebula is voted on by the professional peers of the award nominees—members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. There are six nominees in the best novel category this year; every two weeks between now and the awards ceremony on May 18, Ceridwen Christensen will be taking a look at each of them, and figuring their odds of taking home the prize.

The Pitch:

In 2014, Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” was awarded the Hugo for Best Novelette. In that story, the titular lady astronaut, Dr. Elma York, is living on Mars with her husband when she’s confronted with a dilemma: she has a chance to undertake one last mission as an astronaut—she hasn’t flown in decades due to her age—or stay behind with her husband, who is dying of a wasting disease. We’re given some biographical information about Elma, her husband Nathaniel, and the alternate history they inhabit, but only in broad strokes. The genuinely heart-wrenching choice Elma must make is truly the center of the piece.

The Calculating Stars is a prequel to that novelette, and tells the incredible life story of the woman who will one day become the Lady Astronaut of Mars.

This is a book that starts with a bang, quite literally. Elma and her husband are vacationing in the Poconos when they’re hit with a flash so powerful that even behind closed eyelids, it is bright as day. Through their shocked conversation that follows, and then the subsequent earthquake, we begin to comprehend the suddenly changed shape of their world. Their first thought is of a nuclear attack by the Soviets, but when they start seeing ejecta from the impact site burning down from the sky, it quickly becomes clear that a meteorite has hit somewhere to the east of them (as scientists, they know nuclear weapons don’t kick up dust and debris). After a terrifying journey further inland to a military base in Ohio, Nathaniel is put right to work in his capacity as an engineer. (He was previously instrumental in a successful satellite launch that put an object in space before the Russians, so he’s known to the brass.) Though Elma was a pilot in World War II—a WASP—she’s sidelined by a fellow pilot (and grade-A jerk) she worked with during the War. It is 1952; President John Dewey and most of the government are dead; Washington DC and the several hundred miles surrounding it have been vaporized.

The scale of the disaster is staggering. Elma’s parents were in Charlotte, NC, in the affected area, and are presumed dead. She and Nathaniel, who lived in DC, only survived by happenstance. Things get much bleaker when, after Nathaniel asks her to perform some calculations for him, Elma figures out that the meteorite strike is probably an eventual extinction-level event. Because the meteorite stuck water, not land, the resulting vapor in the air will eventually cause a runaway greenhouse effect. (It is theorized that such a circumstance explains why Venus is a molten hellscape with sulfuric acid rain, despite being Earth’s twin in many other regards.)

The Space Race, nudged a little bit earlier in this timeline, is already in full swing. With global extinction looming, the imperative to get off Earth becomes that much more dire. The Calculating Stars details a Space Race not against the Soviets, but against time.

Elma pushes doggedly towards her goal of becoming an astronaut. Though she’s a strong and gifted woman, she is beset by doubts and healthy attacks of Impostor Syndrome. Though they are completely standalone, The Calculating Stars makes “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” that much more poignant, as we live through Elma and Nathaniel’s long years of marriage. Though their relationship is not the primary focus of the novel, it is its beating heart.

Why it will win:

I think The Calculating Stars is in a very strong position to win the Nebula this year. Alternate histories maybe don’t have the best odds, Michael Chabon’s win for Yiddish Policemen’s Union 11 years ago notwithstanding, but Kowal’s has so much more going for it than mere subgenre specialization.

Its alternate history is incredibly well-researched (so much so that there’s a bibliography and a dense historical note at the end of the novel that will stack several more books onto your to-read pile). This is hard science fiction in the vein of Kim Stanley Robinson, who has two best novel Nebulas (for Red Mars and 2312). Kowal has a detailed grasp of the science involved and never hand-waves, but neither does she bore you with trivia; the novel remains firmly grounded in Elma’s character. That Elma’s relationship with science is foundational makes Kowal’s care with scientific detail all the more vital.

The Calculating Stars is also both timely and sensitive to history. Though Kowal began the novel before Hidden Figures became an unexpected blockbuster film, the success of the movie was a stroke of luck. It exposed to the general public the important work performed by the black women who served as NASA’s human computers. Though the 1950s and 60s of the “Meteor Age” of Kowal’s novel look very different (here Elma would mutter “it was a meteorite”), even in this changed world the social movements of the post-War era still proceed apace.

The post-Meteor world is more open in some ways: the Soviet Union collapses in the nuclear winter, ending the Cold War, and the race to the stars becomes a truly international endeavor. That doesn’t mean that institutional sexism and racism cease to exist, however: Elma and Nathaniel are initially placed with a black couple, the Lindholms, after they’re displaced, a Major and another computer, and the pair end up becoming their close friends. Through their contrasting experiences, we see not only Elma’s struggles as a woman in a technological field, but the perspectives of people of color as well.

Plus, the book is just cool. Mars is cool. Astronauts are awesome. Though the plot is often more political jockeying than breathless action after that initial section, it never feels slow. Partially because of the debilitating anxiety Elma experiences when speaking to groups (especially groups of men), even simple meetings are braced with tension. And while it is but the first in a duology—The Fated Sky was released only a few months later—it follows a clear trajectory right through to a transcendent conclusion, one that made me tear up—not out of sadness but in wonder.

Why it won’t win: 

I’m at a bit of a loss here. The Calculating Stars does face some stiff competition this year, though I think its most direct comes by way of Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver. They are both books by well established writers (whose first series, curiously, were both alt-Regency) who have serious chops. But even then, in historical terms, science fiction tends to beat out fantasy for best novel honors at the Nebulas. Honestly, The Calculating Stars has about the best chance to win of the nominees, based on the precedents and tendencies of Nebula voters in past years. But people are not statistics, and they may break for fairy tales over alt-history this year. Nebula voters have been tending more to fantasy than they did 30 years ago, so it’s not as strong an indicator as it once was.

Either way, you better believe that the next book on my to-read pile is The Fated Sky. I wouldn’t miss it. You shouldn’t either.

We’ll have one more entry in this year’s Blogging the Nebulas series, making our final prediction as to who will win. Look for that on Friday, May 17. In the meantime, find reviews of this year’s other nominees here. Previous years’ Blogging the Nebulas entries are here.

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The Dystopian Satire China Dream Argues it’s Time We All Wake Up

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In China Dream, Ma Jian’s biting, surreal, and sometimes nightmarish satire of modern China, the past cannot be sanitized. The (semi-fictitious) China Dream Bureau is tasked with bringing the subconscious and most private thoughts of the Chinese people in line with Xi Jinping’s grand dream of a grand, unified China. The organization believes it can replace the nightmares of history, the book brutally shreds the notion that any country (or individual) can wipe away their misdeeds so easily, and posits that the past will continue to haunt (sometimes literally) anyone who refuses to reckon with it. China Dream is and horrifyingly serious as its message, but the slim novel’s shrewd sense of irony, surreal juxtaposition of dreams and reality, and a cartoonish everyman protagonist help ease the pain of its stiletto-sharp jabs.

Ma Daode is the head of the China Dream Bureau, a job he mainly enjoys for the perks—a bevy of mistresses, a duplex apartment, and numerous favors from higher-ups in the Chinese government. Then, during a planning meeting for a Golden Wedding Anniversary celebration for Chinese couples, Director Ma is suddenly confronted with a vision of himself as a teenager during the bloody mob violence of the Cultural Revolution. As Ma continues to build the ideal future for his country, his own hand in its violent past continues to tug at his every step, threatening to destroy his grip on reality even as he tries desperately to blot out his (and China’s) bloody past with a blindingly bright dream of the future.

With brutal and delicious irony, China Dream deconstructs the falsity of national pride build on sanitized, idealized visions of the past, contrasting dreams of a golden, utopian China with the gruesome reality of history. The planning committee for the “Golden Wedding Anniversary” padding the numbers so the decrepit couples don’t “bring down the mood of optimism” when they’re herded through an incongruously lavish ceremony. The nightclubs where the hostesses wear Red Guard uniforms without realizing their bloody symbolism. Ma Daode turns to increasingly fantastical means (microchips, dream encryption, amnesia soup) to shape the legacy of a country that favors banning even the vaguest mention of ghosts in their media. It’s not exactly comedic, but Ma Jian definitely favors a sharp sense of the absurd, blending factual accounts of atrocities with more surreal touches—dream-editing technology, the viral invasion of the past into the present—that underscore the pitch-black satire, and absurdist horror elements and brings it into sharp relief.

That we view this absurd world through the eyes of Ma Daode—a craven, corrupt, overly nostalgic bureaucrat—amplifies the message. He’s the perfect embodiment of Ma Jian’s view of a China swept up in the president’s “New Dream.” Ma Daode is occasionally lost in his more pleasant memories, but continually threatened by the darker ones he refuses to face. He’s an active participant in shaping the dystopia, but not so fully invested that he ignores the implications of his actions; he’s driven to increasingly more desperate means to ease his conscious, with disastrous results. While it’s difficult to call Ma Daode anything like a sympathetic figure, there is a certain pathos to the events that befall him. The pain caused by his brief slivers of remorse drive home the twisted horror of his situation, putting a human face on a national struggle.

China Dream (which was published in Chinese last year and translated into English by Flora Drew) is an unnerving book, but an entirely necessary one. While Ma Jian—a Chinese dissident and exile whose books have been banned in the county for decades—is specifically calling out China for its attempts to erase the past, it is far from the only country trying to build a rosier present by romanticizing or ignoring the blood shed to build it. It’s ruthless and sometimes horrifying satire of the danger posed by a government that believes it owns history, and a cautionary tale to any who would think to ignore such painful truths. It’s a book for today, and a book for the world.

China Dream is available May 7.

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