Sense of wonder: New additions to the human race
It’s only fitting that our selections at year’s end showcase the very best writing that fantasy and science fiction has to offer. All three of this month’s novels invoke traditional genre concepts, but these outstanding works build their narrative drive and emotional power from exceptionally well-drawn characters.
Returning home after the apparent suicide of a childhood friend with whom he hasn’t spoken to in years, Paxton Martin discovers the tiny town of Switchcreek, Tennessee, isn’t the same place he left. Oh, sure, the three new species of people which hyper-evolved through Transcription Divergence Syndrome (TDS)—the Goliath-like argos, the parthenogenic betas and the super-muscular charlies—are still very much alive (though largely forgotten by the outside world once TDS was determined to be non-transmissible). But the older charlies, including Pax’s father, a former preacher, are excreting a strange, hallucinogenic substance; a cult and a schism are brewing in the beta community; and the argos cannot bear children. Pax’s best friend Deke is an argo and the de facto Chief, and Aunt Rhonda is a corrupt, scheming mayor (and a Charlie). Paxton does his best to come to terms with his father, with Deke, with his abandonment of family and friends and with his friend Jo Lynn’s death, which brought him home in the first place in Daryl Gregory’s The Devil’s Alphabet. More subtle than some SF novels, The Devil’s Alphabet is an absolutely stunning, intoxicating blend of vintage mystery, science fiction and intergenerational saga which artfully questions the meaning of what it is to be ‘human.’ Despite the strange occurrence of three new branches of our family tree, the heart of this novel is the deeply human, deeply important meaning of love.
Pure, old-fashioned science fiction is perfectly blended with human frailties in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s recursive Diving Into the Wreck. The first of three stories (two of which were previously published in Asimov’s) introduces us to Boss, a deep-space wreck diver and amateur historian who has found a ship containing lost stealth technology. Boss hires a team to dive it, chart it and claim the prize, but the technology is predictably fatal. Nobody is quite who they appear, particularly Squishy, who abruptly quits the team and loses her partner over an ethical issue. The second story dives into Boss’ past—the loss of her mother to the artifact known as the Room of Lost Souls, her father’s military efforts and Boss’ own genetics. The third story returns to the story of Squishy and the devastating effects of stealth technology. Though slender, the volume contains an emotional depth rarely found in SF. It focuses on the lives, deaths and moral quandaries of the characters rather than the technology—particularly the father-son team whose tragedy is brilliantly understated and emotional, and through Squishy who returns home to atone for her sins. Diving Into the Wreck is highly recommended not only for the inveterate science fiction fan, but for any reader looking for an excellent character study.
Fantasy pick of the month
Total Oblivion, More or Less is Alan DeNiro’s excellent debut novel, and an inversion and analysis of genre tropes. Instead of transporting our heroes and heroines to a fantastic world, the fantastic world is brought to our present day. The Scythians (nomadic horseman from the Middle East) and their antagonists, the Empire, appear and quickly dispatch modern nations, politics, economies and militaries. The Palmer family from Minnesota travels downriver to escape, only to discover that escape is impossible, and other choices limited. Macy Palmer is an deliberately naïve teenage girl who loves her father, a displaced astronomy professor; her sister Sophia (shades of Red Sonya) pursues freedom and love only to discover slavery and abuse; her brother, Ciaran, carries The Children’s Book of Heroes and seeks to be a child-hero like Peter Pevensie, Harry Potter, or Sir Abel but finds that fantasy is not reality. Throughout, the novel seems acutely aware of itself as a narrative. Macy identifies characters she is sure she will share many adventures with; young former World of Warfare gamers discover how very different fantasy worlds are from this world; and villains admit to being involved in crime only for the money. Then there is Em, the wooden submarine captain about whom three contradictory stories are told—none of which completely satisfy the characters or the reader. But this is brilliantly deliberate, informing the reader that this narrative is somehow self-aware of the narrative confines, and (like its teenage non-heroes) it is unwilling to do the expected. This is the very rare novel that satisfies on a multiple of levels.
In alphabetical order, Sean Melican is a chemist, father, husband and writer.