Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is an odd, hard-to-find, little sci-fi title from 1976. It won the Hugo that year, and reminds me quite a bit of Huxley’s Brave New World, though it came along 50 years later. Both books feature central male protagonists who are cranky about a status quo that works to erase individualism via genetic and chemical means. However, what I really appreciated about this book in comparison to Huxley’s was its massive multigenerational scope, which Wilhelm still somehow handled in a very gentle storyteller way. The tone is strange–half Laura Ingalls Wilder, half hard sci-fi. Even as I’m writing this review I’m not exactly sure how to review it. Ultimately, this is a novel of ideas that rotates around the axis of this question: if you could only prepare for the next generation, and you only knew what the previous generation knew, and that knowledge was shifting with every go-round, could humankind survive? If so, what would it take?
Wilder Girls staggers into a lot of my favorite sub-genres and story elements. It’s a little bit of each from a sampler of dystopian sci-fi, body horror, climate fiction, and feminist fiction. It comes in with a strong concept, intriguing suspense, and a gripping setting. I think it’s a great book to help younger readers discover adult titles in the same territory, like Jeff VanDermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. For me, the high concept was the draw, the memorable world was engrossing, but the character dynamics took a backseat. Byatt’s perspective had me entirely captivated. Hetty’s I did not quite trust and, I suppose, that was part of the point. I do definitely want a vase filled with Raxter Irises, so that’s a testament to Power’s significant worldbuilding chops.
Claire Vaye Watkins has established herself as a writer to watch with her novel debut Gold Fame Citrus. I read this book as extreme devastation was ravishing California with wildfire, which feels dangerously close to the future Watkins offers here–the novel is set in a California scorched by extreme drought, fire, and an encroaching sea of sand. The writing is extraordinarily bold, and I admired it for that–it’s very free and very incisive all at once, and there are so many scenes that are just razor sharp. The social criticism here is definitely on point, though it’s truly devoid of hope. The more imperiled the environment becomes in Gold Fame Citrus, the more morally bankrupt its people, the more willing to believe in lies to preserve their own sense of comfort. This book, at its most basic level–even for all of Watkins’ play–is terrifying.
Before even thinking about reading this book, ask yourself three questions: 1. Have I read Borne yet? 2. Do I love Jeff VanderMeer from the very depths of my soul? 3. Am I down for a HIGHLY (whatever you’re thinking, add five to it) experimental narrative structure?
If you answered yes to all three questions, like me, you may proceed.
Dead Astronauts is a demanding journey through many perspectives, most of which are not (or not quite) human. There are multiple timelines woven through simultaneously, and the characters that you begin the book with are not the characters that you’ll stay with. I had to smile as I was reading because I do love Jeff VanderMeer from the very depths of my soul and I have never seen him write with such absolute freedom. Jeff has been unleashed here, and in order to enjoy the book, you need to just trust that after carrying you through bout after bout of madness, that he will ultimately carry you back to a place, in the end, where you feel the full essence and meaning of the book. Even for me, it was hard to trust at times, but once I got there, it was incredibly satisfying. This book broke my heart a little and I didn’t even fully know what happened. It’s not really a book. It’s more like a ride.
Longer is a strange and fascinating little book with a shadow of a plot underneath many bright starbursts of philosophy. The science fiction setting serves as the backdrop for what is really a four-person drama about the ethics of mortality and what we determine the word “living” to mean. Thought-provoking and uneasy, as much of the best sci-fi happens to be.
As the title suggests, Dark Age plunges us into the darkest waters yet seen in the Red Rising saga. Humor and hope are both at their leanest portions, and in their place brutality and desperation are served. The worlds tear themselves apart in this one. Pierce Brown delivers his normal labyrinthine entanglement of alliances, betrayals, secret, and sieges, this time through an ambitious five perspectives. (Virginia’s perspective was the most rewarding, in my opinion.) Whereas the first trilogy of the saga is about the journey of one man, more than ever the series tips toward the journey of an entire political movement, one that spans nine planets and seems to doom everyone in one way or another. After five books with Darrow, loyal readers can’t help but invest emotionally in these unforgettable characters and feel their losses along with them–some of them, this time, were particularly hard. But I admire how Brown was brave enough to go all the way into the dark with this installment, and to create an absolute powder keg setup that book six will no doubt set off within its first few pages. Looking forward to the next ride.
Come for the art, stay for the story. The imagery and color that Dustin Nguyen uses to create this science fiction world are absolutely stunning. These volumes manage to be disturbing in a beautiful way, with the cute and the grotesque coexisting in harmony. The story by Lemire is slower to start, but really gears up in Volume Two with plenty of surprises and enjoyable suspense. Well-trodden AI vs. human and “lost child” tropes are employed, but it’s a comic, so am I really upset about that? I came for a sense of escape and visual delight, and on that front Descender certainly delivers.
A Darkling Sea is some very weird science fiction, which is ordinarily right in my wheelhouse as a reader. This one didn’t sing for me, though, which I attribute to the fairly limited third person point of view and lean, hard science-focused style of James L. Cambias. This book is pure plot, motivated by action and dialogue, but the emotional arc of the story flatlines early on. For readers who want to see cool aliens and a bunch of action sequences but don’t want to think or feel too hard, it will likely be a fun read. I will say this: bonus point for a great ending.
After reading Ted Chiang’s sparkling collection Stories of Your Life and Others, I knew I had to pick up this new volume. These stories are also quite good, solidifying Chiang as an important modern voice in science fiction. His writing is spare and efficient, but packs an incredible punch. His concepts are lofty and complex in a way that will satisfy science fiction classicists. Several of these stories will remain in my mind, predominantly because of the way they approach really important ethical ideas. My favorites were…
“Exhalation”: There’s a reason this is the title story. It’s really gorgeous, melding the concept of body and machine in a fascinating way.
“The Lifecyle of Software Objects”: We are on the threshold of a society that will have new ethical problems concerning the human relationship with AI. This story takes that age-old science fiction trope and explores it in a very personal way.
“Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny”: This story was written for a science fiction short story collection based around objects from an imagined museum exhibit. (I’ve since learned that it’s called The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, and I really want to read it.) This story manages to feel historically authentic, be completely heartbreaking, and be a little funny too.
“Omphalos”: The overlap between ardent faith and scientific discovery is one that I find very compelling, and this story explores that idea in a very satisfying way.
Margaret Atwood is a writer who we need, for so many reasons, and she proves that yet again in The Testaments. Both satisfying and unnerving, true and false, saccharine and scathing, this book gives fans of The Handmaid’s Tale a little more time to look around Gilead and to imagine how we might act were we to find ourselves in similar circumstances. There’s a veil between this dystopian reality and our own which, at times, can feel quite thin. We’re lucky that Atwood is the one pulling the curtain back for us. She is a consummate storyteller, one of the finest of our age.