What have I read recently? I am so happy to have imagined someone asking me that conveniently leading question.
I should note that I have embraced the concept of comparative advantage by focusing on activities at which I am acceptably competent (reading, reviewing, encountering wild animals), freeing people who are not me up for other activities at which they are superior (anything social). The end result is more productivity all round! Plus, it turns out that, at the moment, a simple handshake can be akin to French-kissing Death herself, so all in all, this anti-social, work-focused lifestyle is working out pretty well! For me, anyway. Without further ado, here’s a survey of what I’ve been reading over the last month…
Mars: Stories by Asja Bakić (translated by Jennifer Zoble; 2015 for the original collection, 2019 for the translation)A collection of often evocative science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories. I was reminded of Otsuichi’s gothic horror collections—your blank looks are giving me a sad—although “The Underworld” in particular is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury.
Space by the Tale by Jerome Bixby (1964)A collection of short SF by a now mostly forgotten author. The Bixby you’ve may possibly have read is “It’s a Good Life.” That is not in this collection. Other, deservedly obscure, stories are.
Lilith: A Snake in the Grass (The Four Lords of the Diamond, Book 1) by Jack Chalker (1981)Faced with covert alien infiltration, an oppressive human empire dispatches an agent to a quartet of worlds-of-no-return to unravel the alien plot. Having four worlds to investigate and just one suitable agent, the powers that be duplicate his mind in the bodies of four prisoners. This offers pretty much every Chalkerian trope, particularly unwanted physical transformation. It is a reasonable sampler of his works. Be aware that it’s book one of four, and nothing really gets resolved in this adventure. I should add that this really isn’t recommended, unless you’re already a diehard Chalker fan.
Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen (2019)A time-travel thriller in which a marooned time agent is torn between loyalty to the 21st-century family he had no business starting and his duty to preserve the timeline. I regret to say this failed the Bill and Ted test, which is to say Bill and Ted used time travel’s potential far better than this agent did.
(Lost in the past and need to tell your coworkers when/where you are? Consider using a designated bank security box as a dead drop.)
Rider (Rider, Book 1) by Joyce Chng (2013)A short science fiction novella, first of the three Rider stories. A determined young woman sets out to become not the farmer her society wants her to become, but the first person to ride the more feral of the two intelligent pterodactyloid species native to the planet Jin. Ambition does not, alas, confer immunity to such complications as gravity and hard surfaces, despite which she persists.
The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Third Annual Collection (The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Book 3) edited by Gardner Dozois (1986)Dozois’ curation of the best short works of 1985. If you’re a veteran SF reader, many of the authors contained within will be familiar. The individual stories might not be. While Dozois anthologies are almost always short on works by women, I would recommend this to historians of the field purely on the basis of the Dozois annual report on the state of SF.
Axiom’s End: A Novel by Lindsay Ellis (2020)A fast-paced alternate-past thriller about a slacker already struggling to deal with the consequences of being the daughter of an amoral narcissist. She is drafted, quite against her will, to locate and rescue a small group of alien refugees before an off-world hit squad can find and exterminate them first.
A Summer Beyond Your Reach by Xia Jia (translated by the indefatigable Ken Liu, Carmen Yiling Yan, Emily Jin & Rebecca Kuang) (2020)A collection of translated short pieces by my favourite Chinese author of science fiction and fantasy, two supposedly different genres that Jia skillfully blends together. I got an early copy because I took part in a Kickstarter and I am extremely happy that I did.
Mutants & Masterminds Deluxe Hero’s Handbook by Steve Kenson (2013)A superheroic roleplaying game in the Champions tradition, which translates to: despite having very different game mechanic roots from Champions, M&M offers the same sort of crunchy, numbers-heavy experience (while being actually playable, something I am not confident is true of any edition of Champions past the 5th edition). If you like precisely fine-tuned characters, this is the SHRPG for you. If you want something you can run out of the box, consider Masks or Icons.
Delicious in Dungeon, Book 1 by Ryōko KuiThe intersection of two of my interests, this is a manga set in what is clearly a fantasy roleplaying-style universe of the author’s own devising. Saved from a dragon at the cost of a friend’s life, a group of adventurers race back to recover the dead person’s body from inside the dragon before it is too digested to be resurrected. Desperately short on supplies, they take the extreme step of eating the surprisingly delicious monsters they encounter along the way. It’s one part D&D to one part Iron Chef.
The Best of Keith Laumer by Keith Laumer (1976)A collection of short pieces, drawn from the period before Laumer’s stroke. Although the author has unfortunate lapses—sexism remarkable by the standards of the 1960s in particular—the collection ranges from broad comedy to proto-military SF. If it weren’t so terribly out of print, I’d recommend it to readers curious about Laumer’s work.
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow (2020)An urban fantasy in which two African American teen sisters-by-choice struggle to contain the secret that one of them is a siren. Sirens, invariably Black and imbued with magical persuasive powers, every day face the possibility that they will be murdered and blamed for provoking their own murders. The sisters soon discover that there is vital, need-to-know information that has been withheld from them.
Golden Kamuy, Book 1 by Satoru Noda (2014 onwards)A long-running, beautifully illustrated historical manga about an embittered, badly scarred Japanese veteran of the Russo-Japanese war who becomes entangled in the convoluted search for stolen Ainu gold. On his own, the veteran’s odds are not bad—he is famous for surviving when all around him died—but his primary ally is a young Ainu woman who, while extremely skilled, is probably not as indestructible. Do not expect them to find the gold in volume one of oh-so-many.
LaGuardia by Nnedi Okorafor and Tana Ford (2019)A Hugo-winning near-future/alternate-future comic set in a New York that has not adjusted well to the arrival of off-world aliens. Clearly dystopic and yet still better than the 2020 we actually got.
Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor Alien contact kills a village and orphans a young girl. In compensation, she gains a lethal aura that she struggles to control. In many authors’ hands, this would be the story of an unfortunate who needs to die for the greater good, a 21st-century “The Cold Equations.” That is not how this plays out. Okorafor’s protagonist does her best to constructively serve Ghana’s society.
The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk (2020)A secondary world fantasy in which women’s magic is greatly constrained. Constrained by conventions which solve a tricky problem without inconveniencing men. Beatrice Clayborn is determined to circumvent convention—something that, if she is caught doing, will earn her a starring role on a pyre.
I would not be terribly surprised if The Midnight Bargain appeared on a 2021 award nominee list.
Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon (Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, Book 1) by Spider Robinson (1977)The first and best collection of Callahan tales, set in a bar filled with mutually supportive, badly damaged patrons. Turns out I like the general idea of the Callahan’s stories a lot more than I do the actual stories, which have not aged well. Which, by the way, is also how I feel about Star Trek.
Amazons! (Book one; there is also an Amazons II) edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson (1979)A World Fantasy Award-winning anthology of stories mostly written by women, all featuring what modern readers would call strong female protagonists. This is accompanied by the sort of historical essay that should put paid to arguments over whether women warriors ever existed and yet somehow never has. The anthology leans heavily towards the sword-and-sorcery end of the fantasy scale. Long out of print—anthologies often are, due to rights issues—but recommended if you can track down a copy.
The Armor of Light by Melissa Scott & Lisa A. Barnett (1988)A standalone (I know this is odd, but it is possible to write a story that does not require sequels) historical fantasy in which Queen Elizabeth dispatches court astrologer John Dee to protect Elizabeth’s heir James I from a demonic plot and in so doing, save the future Charles I from the certain doom seen in prophetic visions. Not my thing, mainly because I think the best use of Stuart kings is to test the efficacy of sharp axes.
“The Vilbar Party” by Evelyn E. Smith (1955)A comic short story about a steadfast grump from Saturn who reluctantly accepts a position on Earth, even though he expects humans to hate and mock him as much as his fellow Saturnians do (it is hinted that he assumes Saturnian disdain without actual proof). Among the many factors not taken into account by the pessimistic scholar is that Saturnians resemble terrestrial teddy bears.
Endgame (Jani Kilian, Book 5) by Kristine Smith (2007)The final installment in the adventures of a human soldier who was, without her consent, transformed into a human-alien hybrid. This drags her into the centre of some unpleasant alien power politics, a situation not at all improved by the fact it also drags her into the centre of unpleasant human power politics.
Songs from the Stars by Norman Spinrad (1980)Arguably Spinrad’s best novel (unless Child of Fortune is). Spinrad draws on such Disco-era sources as The Whole Earth Catalog, Small is Beautiful, and The Co-Evolution Quarterly to serve up a post-holocaust tale of self-righteous eco-freaks living in one of the few regions not incinerated in World War Three. They are drawn into a cunning plan to give humanity, such as it currently is, the stars.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.