Scottish writer Ken MacLeod is one of the hottest new science fiction writers around, and his latest space opera, Engine City, is sure to expand his readership. Engine City can be enjoyed by itself or as part of the Engines of Light series that began with Cosmonaut Keep and continued in Dark Light. MacLeod, like Iain M. Banks, writes thoughtful adventure novels in which the grand ideas don't get in the way of a good story.

In MacLeod's fictional world, humans who have been abducted from Earth over thousands of years live in peace with other intelligent races: the gods, collective minds that inhabit asteroids, the kraken (large squid) and the saurs (small, bipedal dinosaurs). The gods, unhappy with all the noise and trouble humanity is kicking up and worried by news that a race of spider-like beings named Multipliers is approaching, seed the solar system with information on interstellar travel hoping that humanity and the spiders will wipe one another out. However, it doesn't quite work out that way. Despite being set far in the future and in a different galaxy, MacLeod's novel sets up economic and social developments similar to our own history, and then changes key components. Engine City is the latest in a long line of science fiction political thought experiments, and the energy and ideas presented here certainly bode well for science fiction's future.

Corporations and advertising take a body slam in Jennifer Government, the second novel from Australian author Max Barry. Set in the near future, this riotous parody follows the adventures of the eponymous hero, Jennifer Government, in a society in which last names are no longer familial. Instead, they are brand extensions; thus Jennifer's daughter, Kate Mattel, is named after her school. Jennifer works in Melbourne (now part of the USA) for the chronically underfunded government and is investigating who is behind a series of killings at Niketown shoe stores. What Jennifer doesn't know, and what we do, is that Nike workers arranged the killings as part of a marketing campaign. (It is slightly disappointing to discover, later on, that approval of the violent marketing campaign does not go all the way to the top of Nike although it does stop the villains from being too cartoonish.)

Barry confidently cuts and switches between these and many other character threads, keeping readers on their toes. You can almost hear the movie adapters (George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh) thanking him for providing such strong visual scenes. Jennifer Government presents a satirical and skewed pro-government look at a future where power has shifted from governments to businesses, and shows, without didacticism or preaching, the human costs of a system where everything including murder is for sale.

Back in the USA, Hugo and Nebula Award-winner Nancy Kress' has a new two-book series that starts with Crossfire. Gail Cutler and Jake Holman are the leaders of Mira Corporation, a 23rd-century private company that has persuaded 6,000 very rich people to help fund a spaceship to leave what they (rightly) believe is a dying Earth. The colonists are made up of discrete groups: a Cheyenne tribe who want to live in their traditional manner; 1,000 Chinese and twice as many New Quakers who want to live quieter and simpler lives; Gail's extended family of ecologically obsessed scientists; a deposed Arabic royal family; and various assorted rich and eccentric people.

When the colonists arrive on their new planet, Greentrees, they cannibalize their spaceship to build Mira City, and the Cheyenne tribe leaves to take over a new continent. It isn't long, however, until the colonists discover they are not alone. There are groups of aliens promptly named "Furs" living in strange and secluded circumstances. First contact goes well with some tribes, but badly with others, and people are killed on both sides. Meanwhile an approaching spaceship is detected.

Besides occasional repetitions and sometimes awkward foreshadowing, Kress does a solid job of getting her characters to another planet and makes setting up a new city an intriguing read. As in Engine City, the most interesting parts of the novel are those in which humans and aliens meet and try to avoid the kind of mistakes made in the past when they have first encountered "the other."

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