Genre round-up—the best new science fiction

Matthew Reilly’s Jack West Jr series began in 2005 with Seven Ancient Wonders and has continued through The Six Sacred Stones, The Five Greatest Warriors and so on, the titles counting down to this final volume, The One Impossible Labyrinth (Orions, £20). It’s the culmination of a protracted adventure romp that has mulched together myth, legend, archaeology, religious iconography and conspiracy theory.

Indomitable hero Jack has faced minotaurs, humanoid automata, corrupt aristocrats and sadistic military-trained opponents, including his own father. He has endured innumerable bullet-riddled confrontations and hair’s-breadth escapes, prevented a couple of apocalypses and survived it all more or less intact. Now, his struggles reach their climax with nothing less than the fate of the entire universe at stake.

Reading a Reilly novel is like watching a sugar-hyped 12-year-old play a video game and listen as they breathlessly commentate on the onscreen action. The Australian author’s plots, like those of many video games, intersperse puzzle-solving and battles against end-of-level bosses with “cutscenes” in which characters mouth exposition at one another and baldly state their motivations. There is, too, a similar sense of weightlessness and lack of consequence. It feels as though Reilly’s heroes can die and simply respawn at some convenient save point, to carry on afresh.

His prose is sophomoric (“Zoe’s mind was a mess. She was literally trying to hold herself together”). His characterization of him is thumbnail. Diagrams and illustrations serve the function that deft descriptive passages should. Yet, for all that, there’s something undeniably addictive here. This is fiction for the PlayStation era, aimed at the 12-year-old gamer in all of us.

There’s undemanding fun to be had, too, in The Kaiju Preservation Society (Tor, £16.99) by John Scalzi; it’s also smart fun. The word kaijufor those who might not know, comes from the Japanese for “strange beast” and is a term nowadays commonly associated with Godzilla and suchlike: skyscraper-sized monsters, usually atomic-powered and reptilian, that stomp around causing havoc and mass destruction.

Everyman protagonist Jamie is recruited by the organization of the book’s title, a secret international body studying kaiju on an alternate-dimension Earth where the ecosystem revolves around the rampaging behemoths and is seriously hazardous to human health. Jamie’s smarmy billionaire ex-employer, who fired him unceremoniously, arrives on a sightseeing visit, harboring nefarious plans. The plot plays out pretty much as you’d expect, but Scalzi was clearly having a blast when he wrote the novel, describing it in his afterword as a post-pandemic “pop song” to bring a smile to our faces “after a stretch” of darkness”. The whole thing zings with his characteristic snarky, bantering dialogue and unabashed nerd-culture references, and is a sheer geeky pleasure from start to finish.

For something a little more serious-minded — and a whole lot spookier — there’s Dead Silence (St Martin’s Press, £16.99) by SA Barnes. The small crew of a spaceship, repairing communications beacons at the edge of the solar system, receive a mysterious distress signal from further out in the void. Its origin is a luxury space liner, the Aurora, which was reported lost 20 years earlier, along with its complement of high-roller passengers. Team leader Claire Kovalik boards the vessel and discovers a host of corpses and evidence of savagery and brutal murder. She also starts catching glimpses of ghosts, including some from a terrible incident in her own childhood arising from corporate malfeasance. Soon the whole crew is affected, even as the allure of salvage rights to the Aurora proves too tempting.

Thematic threads from classic SF movies run through the novel: the tetchy blue-collar dynamic of the crews in Dark Star and Alienthe “haunted spaceship” premise of EventHorizonthe ruthless big-business shenanigans of Aliens. Barnes nonetheless weaves something new with them, while obligingly ladling on the creepiness and gore.

As an antidote to the pulpy vigor of the foregoing three books we have the very serious Lambda (Europa Editions, £12.99), the debut effort from visual artist David Musgrave. In a tech-heavy near-future UK, Cara Gray is a young police officer whose mistake in not predicting a school bombing leads to her being replaced by a sophisticated AI system. The alleged perpetrators of the atrocity are an extremist faction of “lambdas”, small aquatic humanoids who have lately emerged from the ocean and assimilated into land-dwelling society.

Cara — in her new, lesser role as Supervising Community Support Officer, Lambda Liaison — is tasked with eliciting information from one of these sea-born creatures, who has taken the name Gavin Knight-Green. Her job from her is made more difficult because she grows fond of him.

Similarly, the reader’s job is made more difficult by tricky storytelling and sometimes florid writing. There’s a neat idea here nonetheless, and it’s hard to escape the impression that Musgrave is delivering a scathing critique of the attitude towards migrants in Brexit Britain. As Cara says, “There are some very angry people in this country, Gavin. They need someone to blame. It’s much simpler than unpicking what’s really gone wrong.”

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