LOSS OF SHADOWS, LOSS OF MEMORIES: THE BOOK OF M

There are all kinds of books suggesting a dystopian future, involving things like alien invasions, zombie plagues, nuclear winter, global warming, the list goes on and on.  However, The Book of M, by Peng Shepherd, has an absolutely unique reason for the world’s ending: people start losing their shadows, and with their shadows, their memories.  If you’ve ever dealt with someone who’s suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, you’ll immediately realize how nightmarish the prospect of someone’s losing their memories is, and you can easily imagine what a horror show it would be if millions of people began suffering the same syndrome at once.

The Forgetting, as the syndrome is aptly called, started in India with one person losing his shadow, and nobody understanding what was happening or where this would lead.  Soon, however, the disease spread around the world like a plague, with people losing their shadows and then their memories and then turning into something other than human.

The book starts with Ory and Max, a married couple hiding out in the wilds, hoping to escape the disease by staying isolated and away from what passes for civilization (which, of course, would be devastated by millions of people losing their memories, and that’s without considering the other side effects of the Forgetting). They almost live a normal life until the day Max’s shadow starts to disappear.  Frightened by the prospect of what she might do to Ory if she loses her memories altogether, Max runs away, but Ory refuses to let her go and follows her trail through a strange and damaged America. Both Max and Ory encounter bandits, would-be warriors, and a weird cult that worships the shadowless ones. The world around them loses its coherence and sense along with people’s memories of an ordinary world, as if the only thing that made reality follow accepted laws is people’s willingness to believe that it does.

It’s not just a dystopian novel; it’s also a love story, a reflection on the importance of memories and human connections.  If you loved Station Eleven (as I did), or if you’ve had experiences with people losing their memories, this is definitely a book you’re going to want to read.

 

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A DIFFERENT KIND OF FIRST ENCOUNTER: SEMIOSIS

If you would like to experience a new and unique perspective on the cliche of “humans colonizing a different world and encountering aliens there”, I heartily recommend the book Semiosis, by Sue Burke.

The colonists fleeing a dying earth and finding their way to a planet they name Pax happen to land on the wrong planet, not the one they were aiming for, but in the circumstances they decide to make a go of it here even though it’s not ideal (few of the minerals they need to keep their machinery running can be found on this planet, and the gravity is greater than they’re used to).  The world, described in great and enlightening detail, is very strange to the colonists. They’re prepared to deal with potentially dangerous and hostile animals, but it takes a real effort of imagination for them to realize that the most dangerous and potentially hostile beings on this planet are the plants, and that their only hope of surviving is to ally themselves with the right plants.

The book proceeds by generations. Each chapter is told by a different narrator, from a later generation than the one who narrated the last one, though one of the characters, Stevland, a rainbow bamboo who develops from a completely strange being into a citizen, and even a moderator of the colony, shows up in a few chapters, his* perspective changing over time and as a result of his interactions with other moderators.

The humans’ interactions with Stevland are fraught and complicated, partly because it’s difficult for humans to understand what Stevland is really trying to do. He helps them tremendously, providing them with food and with necessary supplements to keep them healthy or to help them solve some of their physical problems, but that ability to help them by adding things to their food could also allow Stevland to make them passive slaves or to change their personalities altogether.  How much can they trust him when he’s so different from them? The pull between survival, albeit in a sort of symbiotic relationship with a plant, and independence, albeit with the potential for utter destruction, plays out in different ways over generations.

One of the threads that runs through the book is the Glassmakers, another alien species which preceded the humans on Pax, developed a relationship with Stevland and then abandoned him and the elaborate and beautiful city they’d built. Who were they?  Why had they left? Are they still around? Can humans and Glassmakers live harmoniously together?

The world-building in this book is outstanding. Everything works together, even as most of the things are different in fundamental ways from their closest equivalents on earth. The intrusion of the humans (and the Glassmakers) into this ecosystem causes a major upheaval that takes generations to work out. What I really liked about this book, and why I recommend it so heartily, is the characters, the human beings (and no matter how the planet and Stevland change them, they are still recognizably and relatably human beings) and Stevland, their attempts to deal with their unusual circumstances, and their struggles to remain true to their principles as those principles are tested by a world so different from the world in which the principles were incubated.

 

*Stevland chooses his gender, as he chooses the name the humans use for him.

YOUR TIME IS NOT YOUR OWN: A MAN OF SHADOWS

It’s really tempting to call Jeff Noon’s new book, A Man of Shadows, a time travel book (and we all know how much I love time travel books), but that’s a misleading description of this extremely quirky and strange new science fiction book, which has been described by some reviewers as “new weird.”

Imagine a noir detective story, the hard-bitten, world-weary, possibly alcoholic private eye battling his own demons in a world that’s inherently corrupt and untrustworthy, setting out to investigate something that seems reasonably simple at first but turns out to reveal levels of corruption and damage throughout the society.  That’s one way you can describe this book: Nyquist, the protagonist, is a private eye who’s been hired by the head of one of the major corporations of his world to find a runaway young woman.

But the way this world is set up is what makes the book unique.  There’s the Dayzone, where there is never darkness, because there are electric lights turned on everywhere, and you can’t see the sky to determine whether it’s actually day or night.  Then there’s Nocturna, which is the opposite: eternal night, no lights to speak of other than the few nearly burned out bulbs that serve as constellations.  In between the two zones is Dusk, a scary place which is neither day nor night but fog and confusion.  

How’s this a time travel novel, or like a time travel novel?  Well, when you have no natural night or day, time becomes very fluid, and in this world, time zones change with the drop of a hat.  You can choose what time you have, purchasing your own time zone from one of the large corporations that control these things, and then you have to adjust your idea of what time it is with those of the people around you.  As you can imagine, this can get quite confusing.

Throw in a serial killer operating in the brilliant and eternal light of the Dayzone whom no one seems to be able to see, let alone catch, and add the possibility that this killer, known only as Quicksilver, might have something to do with the young woman’s disappearance, and the dawning possibility that this woman might have a more crucial role in the maintenance of the world than Nyquist first imagined, and you have a truly original, extremely mind bending, speculative fiction/noir detective/weird book.  Not for the faint of heart, A Man of Shadows will have you looking at the differences in time between different clocks in your home with growing suspicion.

 

THE GHOST OF NEW YORK YET TO COME: NEW YORK 2140

NEW YORK 2140

One of the greatest gifts of speculative fiction is the ability of its best authors to extrapolate from the present to imagine, and bring to life, what could result from the continuation of present trends.  Kim Stanley Robinson, an acclaimed science fiction author who has won just about every award possible in the field, has taken on the issue of global climate change in his latest book, New York 2140, and presents us with an eye-opening view of what could happen to New York City in the aftermath of catastrophic oceanic rise brought about by climate change.

In New York 2140, coastal areas all over the world have been inundated by rising ocean waters, and New York City is no longer just one island, but a multitude of islands separated by canals, with only the highest portions of skyscrapers above the water.  It’s still New York City, still a melting pot filled with energy and life, but it’s a very different kind of city now.

The way Robinson shows us the new world is by taking us through one skyscraper and the people who live in it: police officers, lawyers, market traders, coders, building superintendents, internet stars, orphans, readers.  He twines their lives together and, through these characters, looks at animal extinctions, immigration, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and other issues all too relevant today. The diversity of the characters and the complexity of their interactions makes it feel very much like a portrait of New York City, or of a New York City that could be in the plausible future.

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come if the visions shown him are of what will be or what might be.  One could ask the same question of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and hope the answer will be the same, and that we can change before New York 2140 becomes a portrait of reality.

 

NEW SPECULATIVE FICTION FOR FALL AND WINTER AT THE FIELD

One of the best things about speculative fiction is that it gives us a different perspective on our present lives, sometimes by taking a trend or development that already exists and extending or expanding it, sometimes by creating a different world which mirrors ours in some ways and differs in others.  We have some fascinating new speculative fiction here at the Field, so come in and get a new look at our world.

crosstalk-cover

Would it be a good thing to be totally connected to all the people you care about, 24/7?  While it may seem, these days, that we’re already there, Connie Willis, in her latest book, Crosstalk, demonstrates that there still might be more connectivity available to us, and that it might not be a good thing.  We may already have gone too far in our need to be connected to each other. In Willis’ world, there’s a simple outpatient procedure that couples can do that is supposed to give them greater empathy for each other, and of course it’s massively popular.  Briddey Flannigan’s fiancee suggests they undergo this procedure, and she thinks it’s a great idea, except that it doesn’t quite work out the way it’s advertised.  She discovers that she’s not sharing more emotions with her fiancee. Instead, she’s hearing the thoughts of someone else entirely, a tech nerd in her office, and she can’t seem to shut him out or get herself back on track. And that’s just the beginning of her problems.  The world of Crosstalk isn’t so far removed from ours after all; just a slight change of technology and we, too, could be facing the problems, not of failure to communicate, but excess of communication.  Or are we already facing that?

extreme-makeover-cover

What if there were an anti-aging lotion that started to mess around with your DNA?  What if, instead of making you look younger and more beautiful, it made you change into a different person? Would the company that developed such a product bring it to market even knowing that there were these very odd and not-as-advertised side effects?  Of course it would, and thereby hangs a tale, specifically the plot of Extreme Makeover by Dan Wells.  Not only does the company, New Yew,  think it’s a beauty breakthrough, but there are other players who see this new lotion as a potential weapon, and the scientist who developed the lotion in the first place wants to destroy it entirely.  It’s not every day that a health and beauty company has the power to destroy the world, but this may happen in Extreme Makeover.  After all, it is called extreme, right?

after-atlas-cover

The story of the starship leaving Earth to explore strange new worlds and new civilizations is an old trope in speculative fiction, and there are all kinds of ways authors ring changes on this situation, but Emma Newman, in After Atlas, takes a different tack. Instead of following the ship, Atlas, away from earth to find truth among the stars, she focuses on the people left behind on earth, and sees how they were affected by the ship’s departure.  Specifically, the protagonist, Carlos Moreno, lost his mother when she left on the ship Atlas, and in a way lost his father to despair as well.  When the ship left earth, the religious cult known as the Circle, led by Alejandro Casales, began to rise in power.  Now, forty years after the departure of the Atlas, Casales has been found dead in his hotel room, and Carlos is the officer called upon to investigate his death.  He’s supposed to keep his personal feelings from influencing his investigation, but that proves to be more difficult than he would have thought, and the question of who would kill Casales now leads him into all kinds of other questions, about Atlas, about why the ship left and what was really going on, what is still really going on here on earth.

NEW SPECULATIVE FICTION AT THE FIELD

sleeping giants cover

Here’s an intriguing opening scene: a young girl rides her bicycle and falls into the earth.  She wakes up inside what looks to her like a square shaped hole whose walls glow with intricate carvings, but the people rescuing her see her resting on the palm of a giant metal hand. This is the beginning of Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel.  Stop there: wouldn’t you want to know what that was all about?  Wouldn’t you be eager to keep reading?  Of course there’s more to the story: years later, the world doesn’t know much more about that giant metal hand than they did when the girl (Rose Franklin — hmm, do you think the name was chosen deliberately?) discovered it by accident in the first place.  Where did it come from? What is it? What does it mean?  Rose, now a physicist studying the artifact, is coming close to figuring the thing out, but will it prove to be a boon to humanity, or a weapon of unfathomable mass destruction?

raft cover

A South African writer, Fred Strydrom, has written a different kind of post-apocalyptic novel in The Raft.  Instead of the usual zombies/disease/nuclear war scenario, Day Zero in this book was when every human being on earth lost his or her memory.  Nobody can mourn, nobody can heal, because nobody knows what happened.  Indeed, to most people it’s not clear that anything did happen (all right, admit it: you’re already intrigued by this premise; I certainly am).  In the aftermath, society has begun to re-form, with people living in isolated communes run like dictatorships.  One man, Kayle Jenner, finds himself on a remote beach, haunted by memories, or something like memories, of his lost son.  When he sets out to try to find his son, he runs into allies and enemies, and slowly begins piecing together what happened on Day Zero, and what that truth means for those who remain. And of course, for those of us doing the 2016 Reading Challenge, this counts as a post-apocalyptic novel: just one more reason to try it!

NEBULA AWARDS

If you’re interested in the bigger picture of speculative fiction, why not dive into the Nebula Awards Showcase 2016, edited by Mercedes Lackey?  The Nebula Awards are voted on by members of the Science FIction and Fantasy Writers of America and are given for best novel, best short story, best novella and novelette, and every year this collection provides readers with the nominees in the short story and novella categories, with excerpts from the nominees in the longer categories.  Find out what speculative fiction writers believe is the best of the best for this year: check out the Nebula Awards Showcase 2016 and expand your horizons.