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March 18, 2020

3 Books for Science Fiction Fans

by MK French


It seems a little like we have fallen into the pages of a science fiction story lately, hasn't it? These three stories can provide a good distraction from our current crises.

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Alice in Virtuality by Norman Turrell

December 2011; ebook (152 pages)
YA cyberpunk
Martin would rather stay on his own to do his programming and play his games and likes his isolated life. When he loads the AI "Alice" into his computer, it begins to attack his life when he won't play along with its deranged ideas.

This short story is definitely a critique of the gaming culture and the impact the diverse impulses of humanity can have on an artificial intelligence. There is a strong aspect of gamers that go into virtual worlds with the intent of causing grief to others. These griefers served as Alice's early introduction into human behavior, and she took it to its inevitable conclusion: humans have to do various malicious things in order to amuse her, or their finances are forfeit and they lose the games they actually care about. While there is the potential for beauty in the world, sometimes even that is not enough to fight that impulse. It certainly can't be fought off if people remain alone and unwilling to reach out for help from others. Martin is less of a loner at the end, with the potential for friends and a girlfriend. It's human companionship that matters most, and only by creating those bonds could Alice ever be defeated.

Buy Alice in Virtuality at Amazon

Letters from the Light by Shel Calopa

December 2019; Inspired Quill; 978-1908600912
ebook, print (500 pages); dystopian
Australia in the future is one of sharp division: the privileged have access to light, and the poor have to work in darkness. Sam is the only sighted boy in a village of blind workers, an occurrence that is seen as a holy sign by those in charge. Harper is an acolyte for the religious sect the Civil Sisters and does whatever errands others give her. The Pallas family is at the height of Sydney society, and the twin sons and Governor look down upon the hardscrabble underworld populace until their lives are literally shaken in an explosion. Together, they have to figure out a better way to live.

This novel takes place in the distant future, the 34th century AD to be precise, long after generation ships left Earth to colonize the stars. The loss of sight is taken as a given in the dark tunnels and caves that the shale miners work in, and the religious order in charge is certain of their own importance. I find them distasteful, and I’m sure that I’m meant to; they conspire to remove Sam from his family for their own means, then behind their subordinate’s backs state that they’re all to be killed. There are even more machinations behind those scenes, too.  There really aren’t redeeming qualities for the Governor, who is self-absorbed, misogynistic and treats everyone not in his social strata as unworthy. He doesn’t even show respect to the higher-ups in the religious orders unless they can be of use to him.

Sam appears briefly in the beginning, then several chapters later after other characters are introduced; much of the social networks and world-building isn’t fully explained in the beginning. This makes it a little more confusing to follow, and some of the characters really aren’t likable. The Pallas twins rag on each other a lot as brothers do, but I didn’t find them to be compelling or very likable. Their mother is a rather absent figure, and the Civil Sisters don’t have much of a personality. Plus, they can be hypnotized and have various trigger words conveniently implanted in their minds. I found the snippets of Aggy’s story more compelling in contrast, not just because they were more action-packed at first, but also because she was a more vibrant figure in those scenes. She starts fading into the background when we have more of an idea of what’s going on, which occurs around one-third of the way through the book.

By the time we get to the halfway point, the story actually picked up. The full explanation hits almost two-thirds of the way through the book, and several of the characters still remain thoroughly unlikable. This means that we enjoy seeing them have their plans shatter, but there is a body count to go along with that failure. On top of that, the increasingly sci-fi portions of the book take on a world-ending potential. Honestly, I feel as though if the first third was cut out or rearranged to serve as flashbacks, a lot of the difficulty getting into the novel would be lessened. It's a bit of a hard slog through those chapters, and with so few likable characters in the beginning, it almost didn't feel worth it. I'm glad I hit the last half of the novel, which is far better than the first half.

Buy Letters from the Light at Amazon

Infinite Stars: Dark Frontiers edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

November 2019; Titan Books; 978-1789092912
ebook, print (640 pages); space opera
This is a collection of twenty-six different stories in the space opera genre, including those by known names in the field. The stories are sometimes within the worlds that these authors had written their novels in, and some of the stories are completely separate. Each author provided a forward to each story, putting it into context. Space opera can mean many different things, after all, and not all of the stories involve space military or loners.

Our opening story in this collection is “Ishigaki,” a Lost Fleet story by Jack Campbell. That is definitely a military-style space opera, taking place in the midst of an interstellar war, and this story focuses on one of the survivors of Black Jack’s crew. I hadn’t read those books, so I was at a disadvantage starting this story, but there is enough of an explanation for the war, the ancient terms still being used in the far-flung future, and that there is a war on. The focus is on the gunner Diana Magoro as she navigates a new post, her past mistakes, and the very famous battle she survived. It follows normal story logic, in that the warning she gives to the younger sailors becomes the very thing that saves them all. Scifi may power means that it’s accomplished, but at its heart, it’s still about the individual fighting to make a difference within the larger world.

Becky Chambers’ offering is also a story within a wider universe that is still a good entry point. Instead of a war, the sci-fi element is a race of aliens deliberately infected with viruses that give enhanced cognitive ability in exchange for a shorter lifespan, and the mathematical ability helps make space travel possible. Mas is an exception to society and feels painfully lonely as a result of that. I really enjoyed how alien all of the races in that story were, and not just thinly veiled humans with different coloring. Their emotional connections with each other is still recognizable, and we can identify with any of the characters involved. Heinlein’s contribution is a hard science story, in that we have ships, interstellar mining, gravity equations and math that one of the crew fortuitously can do without the need of a calculator. George R. R. Martin contributed a tale as well, not from his well known Song of Ice and Fire series, but a separate story for his space opera tales. It’s well written, but I don’t feel any particular connection with the characters or the situation that they’re in. Orson Scott Card’s contribution makes more sense if you’ve read Ender’s Game and Xenocide, but is so incredibly dry as well.

On the other hand, I connected with the characters in Curtis C. Chen’s “Fire In The Pocket,” which is a prequel to his Kangaroo series. It has its technical qualities, being a story set in the future, but it’s just as much about the characters and how they interact with each other. Oliver has to address his own grief as he works on a secret government project, and the person code-named Kangaroo is a teenager. “Dream Park” is a story taking place in a futuristic amusement park that is the setting for a series of stories written by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. While there are sci-fi elements, it’s as much a mystery spanning decades and peeking behind the curtain of a magician’s show.

 As a fan of Seanan McGuire’s, seeing her name on the contributor’s list made me squee. This is a standalone space opera fic, as opposed to her zombie books as Mira Grant or the urban fantasy she writes under her own name. This is a western-styled story, with shoot outs and a one-room schoolhouse to teach children of asteroid farmers and miners in the midst of a war between human colonies scattered throughout the solar system. It’s a sparse style like westerns can be, but that doesn’t hide the simmering fury beneath it for the main character. David Farland’s “Respect” also has genetically modified humans, and the man in charge of these “battle model” humans actually has less humanity than the alien they’re sent to capture.

Science fiction of any kind is often used as a lens to look at society and its ills. Space opera tends to use intergalactic and interspecies conflict in order to do this. These reflections can show us the best humanity can offer, or the worst, in the sense of xenophobia, misogyny and the manipulation of others. As this collection shows us, there is a wide variety of styles within the space opera genre, and there is always something more to learn.

Buy Infinite Stars at Amazon



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