These new science fiction reads are out of this world
By Cixin Liu
(Tor, 304 pages, $33.99)
Cixin Liu is best known in the West for his epic trilogy beginning with the novel The Three-Body Problem. Ball Lightning was actually first published (in China) before those books, so it’s not a follow-up even though its English translation is. It does, however, share a lot of the same interests and concerns.
Both the trilogy and Ball Lightning involve stories about team problem solving, with scientists, the government, and the military working together to take on complicated matters involving highly speculative and experimental research. In this book it’s a Chinese Manhattan Project investigating (and looking to weaponize) ball lightning, a dimly-understood atmospheric phenomenon that has some connection to weird physics.
Liu is usually regarded as writing a type of hard science fiction because of the amount of time he spends discussing technical matters. But his stories also have a metaphysical dimension and are grounded in the personal histories and emotional needs of his characters. Ball Lightning is very much a book in this same vein, containing in a single vision both inner and outer space, the material universe and the ghosts in the machine.
The Expert System’s Brother
By Adrian Tchaikovsky
(Tor, 171 pages, $19.50)
In such classic SF works as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz history is described as a cycle of collapse and recovery. We slide from an advanced, science-based civilization into a new dark age of mysticism and religion, then recover and begin the process all over again.
This cycle has its roots in the broad shape of European history, going from the collapse of the Roman Empire, through the Dark Ages, to the Enlightenment. It’s at work again in The Expert System’s Brother, which is set in a fantasy world of small villages run by functionaries such as Lawgivers and Doctors who seem to be controlled by some kind of spiritual Wi-Fi.
When Handry is banished from his home village he sets out upon a journey of discovery that ultimately reveals the truth behind the strange myths and cults that rule his world. And, as dependence on authority is the foundation of both theocracy and technocracy, it is a truth with the potential to set him free.
I Only Killed Him Once
By Adam Christopher
(Tor, 221 pages, $33.99)
I Only Killed Him Once is the fourth and final novel in the alternative-history, retro-noir Ray Electromatic Mysteries series, wherein we bid a long goodbye to the eponymous robot hit-man/detective.
Ray is a complicated figure, blessed with a solid-state chassis and advanced brain but only a 24-hour memory. At the end of every day the reel-to-reel microtapes in his chest are downloaded and reset. As you can imagine, this leads to all sorts of difficulties for Ray, and also for Adam Christopher in having to work around such a narrator.
But it all works surprisingly pretty well, and the series wraps up nicely as Ray takes on a dangerous assignment that forces him to uncover both his own origins and the true identity of his office manager, the seductively smoky-voiced Ada. As things turn out, the two may be related …
The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-fifth Annual Collection
Ed. by Gardner Dozois
(St. Martin’s Griffin, 679 pages, $31.50)
It’s not a stretch to say that when Gardner Dozois died this past May it marked the end of an era. Among his many achievements as the most prominent SF editor and anthologist of his generation was his long-running stint at the helm of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, a series that he edited every volume of since he founded it in 1984.
What made Dozois special? Part of it was hard work. You always had the sense that he read every SF short story published — in print or online, by industry veterans and by newbies — every year. This in turn led to his series being the biggest of all the annual anthologies.
But even more than that, he was guided by a taste that was both broad, in genre terms, and specific in his sense of what makes a story work. No matter how far afield they range or speculative they become, the Year’s Best stories are always primarily about people. People who, even when they’re not what we would recognize as human, face problems we can all relate to.