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New Books in Science Fiction

Author: Marshall Poe

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Bestselling and award-winning science fiction authors talk about their new books and much more in candid conversations with host Rob Wolf. In recent episodes, he's talked with Martha Wells (The Murderbot Diaries) about endearing-but-deadly bots, Sam J. Miller (Blackfish City) about “hopeful" dystopias, Daryl Gregory (Spoonbenders) about telekinesis and espionage, Meg Elison (The Book of Etta) about memory and the power of writing, Mur Lafferty (Six Wakes) about cloning and Agatha Christie, Maggie Shen King (An Excess Male) about the unintended consequences of China's one-child policy, and Omar El Akkad (American War) about the murky motivations of a terrorist.
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C.A. Fletcher’s new novel,  A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World(Orbit, 2019), takes place several generations after a pandemic has turned humans into an endangered species.For Griz, the adolescent narrator, life is bounded by his family, two dogs, and the Outer Hebrides island where they hunt, fish, and farm.When Brand, a lone sailor, shows up, Griz is mesmerized by his stories of adventure. But when Brand steals one of the family’s dogs, Griz gives chase.As Griz and their other dog journey through the ruins of our world, they explore the limits of loyalty while learning a lesson in human cruelty.“If you're not true to the things you love, what are you?” Fletcher says, quoting Griz. “That's when you stop being human.”In his interview, Fletcher discusses the research that informs the novel’s “soft apocalypse,” the difference between writing screenplays and novels, his father’s wise words about dogs, and the real-life terrier behind Griz’s canine companion.Rob Wolf is the author of The Alternate Universe and The Escape. A former journalist, he directs communications at a non-profit dedicated to justice reformLearn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
For Blue and Red—arch enemies at the center of Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s epistolary novella, This is How You Lose the Time War (Gallery, 2019)—the only thing that endures after millennia of espionage and intrigue is love.El-Mohtar and Gladstone are themselves avid letter writers who favor fountain pens and G. Lalo stationery over pixels and Gmail. So it was only natural that when they decided to collaborate on a novella about enemies-turned-inamoratas, their tale takes the form of a correspondence.Since Blue and Red can travel across timelines and live for eons, they compose their letters from materials that take a long time to manipulate, such as the rings of a tree, an owl pellet, lava flows, and sumac seeds.El-Mohtar and Gladstone, on the other hand, were constrained by ordinary time and space. “He writes about four times as fast as I do. So it was it was tricky at first,” El-Mohtar says. “But then as we rounded off the first act, we started changing the pace of our respective writing. Max slowed down and I sped up. And then we were finishing at exactly the same time.”Like the co-authors, the book’s characters also found a rhythm. Blue and Red start our as sworn enemies sent across timelines to fight on behalf of very different futures. But they find that they have more in common with each other than they do with the universes that they’ve promised to defend.Red is “hungry for something more than what's known,” Gladstone says. “In Blue, she finds not just someone who takes the world as seriously as she does, but someone who has the same depth of desire and focus and devotion to her chosen art, which is time war … who throws her beyond her own limits.”“From both of their perspectives, there is a sense of alienation and insufficiency in the worlds that they come from,” El-Mohtar says. “Blue is someone who feels this constant gnawing, insatiable hunger that nothing in her world seems able to sate… until she starts being surprised by Red, this agent on the other side, who makes things hard for her.”Rob Wolf is the author of The Alternate Universe and The Escape. He worked for a decade as a journalist, and now serves as director of communications at a non-profit dedicated to justice reform. Follow him on Twitter @RobWolfBooks.Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
In The Last Astronaut (Orbit, 2019), David Wellington turns his prolific imagination—which is more often associated with earthbound monsters like zombies, vampires, and werewolves—to the threat of an alien invasion.Set in 2055, the novel introduces a NASA ill equipped to respond to the arrival of a massive object from another star system. The agency no longer has an astronaut corps, so it turns to the last astronaut it trained, 56-year-old Sally Jansen, who retired in disgrace years earlier after the death of an astronaut under her command.Jansen and a crew of three, who are trained for space flight in just a few months, race to greet the massive 80-kilometer-long visitor, but the goal of each member of her team is as varied as their personalities. One wants to fulfill a life-long dream of being an astronaut; one wants to communicate with aliens; one wants to study them; and one wants to destroy them.Wellington says his interest in science fiction goes back to when he was six and he himself aspired to be an astronaut. “I wrote a letter to NASA saying, ‘Can you tell me what I should do to become an astronaut?’ And they sent me back a very nice form letter telling me I should enlist in the military and learn how to fly a plane,” he says. “They also sent me a manila envelope full of glossy 8-by-10 photographs of rocks on the moon and the Saturn 5 rocket and the Apollo lander and the Space Shuttle. Those photographs became some of my most prized possessions.”The alien object in The Last Astronaut was inspired by 'Oumuamua, which astronomers first observed in 2017 and had trouble classifying, first calling it an asteroid and now a comet. Because of its unusual trajectory and apparent interstellar origin, some even thought it could be an alien spaceship.“This is definitely a horror story,” Wellington says. “There's violence, there's death … This is not The Martian. In the Martian, Andy Weir creates a situation of peril, but it's all about solving that problem. My book is much more about surviving, if you can.”As for the all-important question of whether he’d rather dine with a monster or a space alien, Wellington is quick to answer. “I'd much rather have dinner with an alien,” he says. “I would love to try to communicate with a creature from another planet.”Rob Wolf is the author of The Alternate Universe and The Escape. He worked for a decade as a journalist, and now serves as director of communications at a non-profit dedicated to justice reform. You can follow him on Twitter @RobWolfBooks. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
The massive corporation at the center of Eliot Peper’s Analog trilogy, which he completed last month with the publication of Breach (47North, 2019) is radically different from most science fictional companies. It aspires to do good.The growth of Commonwealth into a benevolent behemoth is chronicled in the series’ first two novels, Bandwidth and Borderless (which Peper discussed on the New Books Network last fall.) By the end of Borderless, Commonwealth, which controls the near-future version of the internet, has become its own sovereign entity, one whose ownership of the “feed” has given it enough soft power to force nations—through a clause in its terms of service—to implement an international carbon tax.Breach opens 10 years later. By this point, Commonwealth has instituted open borders and replaced national currencies with “feed credits” (if that sounds implausible, see Facebook’s recently unveiled plans to create its own digital currency, Libra). Commonwealth is now considering implementing something that one of the company’s loudest critics, billionaire Lowell Harding, is willing to kill to prevent: progressive membership fees—essentially a wealth tax—that will charge users to access the feed in proportion to their net worth, with profits invested in infrastructure for the poor.Harding calls the plan “worse than the French Revolution” and “f**king Piketty on algorithmic steroids!”Peper brings back the characters from the first two books, giving a star turn to Emily Kim, a hacker turned MMA fighter who has gone into hiding after earlier misdeeds. Between suspenseful fight scenes, characters grapple with heady topics like economic inequality, corporate responsibility and national governance.There’s a message in Peper’s books for today’s internet giants. The companies “that have gained a lot of power in society,” Peper says, “need to look in the mirror and think about how they should actually be making decisions … that will actually result in a future that people want to live in for the long term not just for the next quarterly report.”Rob Wolf is the author of The Alternate Universe and The Escape. He worked for many years as a journalist, writing on a wide range of topics from science to justice reform, and now serves as director of communications for a think tank in New York City. Read his blog or follow him on Twitter.Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Vandana Singh has made a career of studying both hard science and the far corners of creativity. It’s no surprise then that Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (Small Beer Press, 2018), which was nominated for a Philip K. Dick Award, reflects a fluency in multiple languages—not just English and Hindi, but the idioms of both particle physics and fantastical narratives that reach far beyond what science can (as of yet, at least) describe.“One of the things that really bothers me about how we think about the world is that we split it up into all these different disciplines and fields that have impenetrable walls between them, and one of the reasons I love … writing science fiction is that it allows us to make those walls porous,” Singh says.A reader might think that an expert in both particle physics and climate science might hesitate to write stories that explore impossibilities like time travel or machines “that cannot exist because they violate the known laws of reality” (the subject of the collection’s eponymous tale). But Singh embraces paradox and the simple truth that there’s still much about the universe that we don’t understand.Scientists are supposed to be objective and “check their emotions at the door,” she says. But it “isn't that simple because, after all, the paradox is that we are a part of the universe, studying the universe. And so how can we claim full objectivity?” Singh feels the only way to be authentic is “to acknowledge who I am as a human, as this little splinter of the universe conversing with another little splinter of the universe.”Several of the stories’ characters are, like Singh, female scientists, and their struggles to be taken seriously reflect real-world conditions.“In the physical sciences, it's still pretty tough for women,” says Singh, an assistant professor of physics at Framingham State University. “We have plenty of gender issues in India but the assumption that women can't do as well or don’t have the ability … is not that strong or strident in India.” In the U.S., however, “the negative micro-messaging and sometimes macro-messaging I've come across has been ‘Well a woman, so what do you know?’ You’re automatically assumed to be more touchy-feely and … you must not be as good at science, which is utterly absurd.”For Singh, physics and storytelling are intrinsically linked. “The way that I think about physics is really influenced by the way I think about story, and they're different but they talk to each other,” she says. For instance, she’s used fiction “to explore concepts that help me also conceptualize climate science for the classroom and beyond, and think of or reframe different ways of thinking about climate change and what's happening to our world. … I guess one analogy I could make is binocular vision. I have two ways of seeing the world, and they talk to each other so you get more depth.”Rob Wolf is the author of The Khronos Chronicles. He worked for a decade as a journalist and now serves as director of communications at a non-profit dedicated to justice reform. Follow him on Twitter: @RobWolfBooks.Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Audrey Schulman’s Theory of Bastards (Europa Editions, 2018) uses a scientist’s relationship with bonobos—and her struggle to keep them alive following a civilization-shattering dust storm—to explore climate change, over-dependence on technology, and the challenge of a body that produces more pain than pleasure.The novel, which won this year’s Philip K. Dick Award and Neukom Institute Literary Arts Award from Dartmouth, was almost never written.. Despite the fact that her four previous books had been well received, Schulman found it a continual challenge to get published and was on the brink of abandoning writing altogether. But Kent Carroll, the editor at Europa Editions who oversaw the publication of her novel Three Weeks in December, reached out, saying he wanted to publish a new book by her.“I've always wanted to write—there's nothing more I've wanted—and so given the opportunity, I couldn't say no.”Schulman’s work returns again and again to a few themes. “I feel like every writer—if they're very lucky—figures out the themes that allow them to do their best writing. And I seem to have very, very narrow themes: some large, charismatic mega-fauna, a hint of possible violence, a different climate, some possible scientific research, and the main character has to be in a body that's somehow physically different from most other people.”The main character in Theory of Bastards, Frankie Burk, an evolutionary psychologist and recipient of a MacArthur genius award, has endometriosis, a painful condition that limits her activity and fuels her misanthropy. As the book opens, the 33-year-old Frankie is arriving at the Foundation, a zoo for primates where she can observe bonobos to research her hypothesis about infidelity—the eponymous “theory of bastards”—which postulates that the reason 10 percent of human children are produced through affairs (a number Schulman encountered while researching the book) is because the mothers have an impulse—regardless of the strictures against infidelity—to have sex with men whose genes will improve the child's immune function.“You have to wonder why there is such a huge percentage of children who are not related to their fathers,” says Schulman, who was raised by her father after her own mother had had an affair. “There has to be a big benefit because the dangers are so big for getting pregnant illegitimately, for having a bastard. And so the theory that my character comes up with is that that it offers genetic benefits.”The plot takes a sharp turn when a dust storm knocks out the power and information grid. To keep both themselves and the bonobos alive, Frankie and her colleague David Stotts, free the animals and lead them on an expedition across rural America, where the primates show that they might be better suited than humans to survive in what appears to be a post-technology world, and Frankie starts to shed her misanthropy, even as society is on the brink of collapse.“I've always loved post-apocalyptic novels, but it's almost always only able-bodied humans that survive. Nobody ever pulls their pet corgi out of the rubble and marches on. And I just thought it would be really interesting to play out what would happen if a relatively capable, somewhat-similar-to-human species survived with humans, post-apocalypse.”Schulman is working on a new novel featuring dolphins.Rob Wolf is the author of The Alternate Universe and The Escape. He worked for a decade as a journalist, and now serves as director of communications at a non-profit dedicated to justice reform. You can follow him on Twitter @RobWolfBooks.Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Caitlin Starling’s debut The Luminous Dead (Harper Voyager, 2019) takes readers along with her young protagonist, Gyre Price, to a place few would voluntarily go—into a deep, pitch-dark cave inhabited by avalanche-inducing, rock-eating worms from which only one human being (among many) has emerged alive.Still, Gyre thinks the risk of scouting for minerals is worth it. Not only does the job pay extraordinarily well, but she’s wearing a state-of-the-art suit, which protects her from the cave’s potentially lethal environment.Normally, there’s a whole team of experts guiding cavers like Gyre, but when she’s deep underground Gyre learns her team consists of only one person—a woman name Em, whose motives and reliability become increasingly murky as the days pass.“The more that it is only Em there with her, the worse things get because Em isn’t sleeping, Gyre isn’t getting to talk to anybody else …, and they’re getting more and more drawn into each other’s problems as opposed to it being a professional sort of interaction,” Starling says.Gyre knows Em only by voice and an occasional video transmission, and yet they form a profoundly intimate—and arguably twisted—bond. It perhaps comes as no surprise that Starling was a teen in the 1990s, forming intense online relationships with people she never met in person. “It's very easy to construct ideas around who that person is and what your relationship is like that can become very tumultuous or intense,” she says.With a single setting and only two main characters, one of her biggest challenges was keeping the plot propulsive. Fortunately, with corpses of dead cavers appearing in unexpected places, massive worms threatening to bury her, and the ever-present possibility that rather than help Gyre, Em wants to kill her, Starling meets that challenge with page-turning ferocity.Rob Wolf is the author of The Alternate Universe and The Escape. He worked for a decade as a journalist, and now serves as director of communications at a non-profit dedicated to justice reform. You can follow him on Twitter.Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
In 2012 George Lucas shocked the entertainment world by selling the Star Wars franchise, along with Lucasfilm, to Disney. This is the story of how, over the next five years, Star Wars went from near-certain extinction to the release of a new movie trilogy, two stand-alone films, and two animated series. In Star Wars after Lucas: A Critical Guide to the Future of the Galaxy(University of Minnesota Press, 2019), Dan Golding examines the current status of Star Wars, as well as the similarities and differences between the old and the new. His book is a great mix of both academic and popular that will give readers a useful sense of Lucas’ creation.Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Meg Elison’s The Book of Flora (47North, 2019) trilogy is as much about gender as it is about surviving the apocalypse.The first installment, the Philip K. Dick Award-winning The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, set the tone with a pandemic that destroyed civilization, leaving behind 10 men for every woman. To avoid rape and enslavement in this male-dominated landscape, the eponymous midwife must present herself as a man to survive.In the next volume, The Books of Etta, set a century later, gender remains fraught but the rules have changed. The midwife’s legacy lives on in the town of Nowhere, where women are decision-makers and leaders. In this evolved world, Etta is allowed to choose the traditionally male job of raider, although she must still pretend to be a man to travel across a sparsely populated Midwest. Fortunately, this isn’t as heavy a lift for Etta as it had been for the midwife since Etta prefers to be called Eddie and identifies as male.The notion of choice is one that Elison takes a step further in the trilogy’s latest and final installment, The Book of Flora. Born male, Flora was neutered as a young boy by a slaver, and, as an adult, identifies as female. Although she doesn’t always find acceptance among the communities she encounters, she refuses to hide her gender identity even when traveling alone, preferring the risk of being female to hiding who she is.“As the world goes from absolute chaos to small pockets of … a more peaceful existence for women, I thought the most gendered person in the series, Flora, was the right person to come to something like peace,” Elison says.Set in a still dangerous world, The Book of Flora is nonetheless a riot of humanity, full of characters representing marginalized voices and communities incubating new cultures and norms. There’s even a hint of an evolutionary leap that may one day make gender obsolete.“I was really interested in books like Gulliver's Travels, but also in the idea of, after the loss of national media and immediate communications, how different our societies would immediately become: we'd have these little pockets of culture where every town would have its own urban legends and every town might have its own religion and every town might have its own courtship rituals. So that that gave me a real opportunity to get weird and I got really weird with it, and it was extremely fun.”Rob Wolf is the author of The Alternate Universe and The Escape. He worked for a decade as a journalist, writing on a wide range of topics from medicine to justice reform. He now serves as director of communications at a non-profit dedicated to justice reform. You can follow him on Twitter.Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
Charlie Jane Anders’ The City in the Middle of the Night (Tor Books, 2019) is a coming of age story about Sophie, a young woman trying to forge her identity on a planet of rigid social classes, harsh climate and frightening aliens.Feeling hopelessly out of place, Sophie ventures where no human has gone before: into the half of the planet that's shrouded in perpetual night. There she befriends the native inhabitants, the Gelet; they’re fearsome tentacled creatures whom humans fear and hunt but who turn out to be sensitive, sentient, and able to communicate with Sophie through touch.Ultimately, Sophie comes to recognize that the Gelet “belong on this planet … in a way that humans don't,” Anders says.Anders, whose previous work has earned Hugo, Nebula, William H. Crawford, Theodore Sturgeon, Locus and Lambda Literary awards, is an advocate for the power of science fiction to help humans prepare for the future. “You can explore a lot of scenarios in science fiction that help people develop flexibility and hope and resilience and an awareness of the value of cooperation,” Anders says.Anders wrote The City in the Middle of the Night the old-fashioned way: in journals longhand. “I find it freeing in some ways because you can't go back and edit as much, and you just have to get stuff down. When you type it all up, that's the time when you start thinking about changing it, moving stuff around.”Rob Wolf is the author of The Alternate Universe and The Escape. Follow him on Twitter.Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
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