By Edward Ashton
St. Martin’s, 304 pages, $37.99
In “Mickey7” Mickey Barnes, a young man with little in the way of employment opportunities who is also on the run from debt collectors, signs up in a state of desperation for a mission to colonize a new planet. Alas, the only job he can get is that of “Immortal,” which is a euphemism for “Expendable.”
What this means is that Mickey is the colony’s disposable man. Since flesh is cheaper and easier to recycle than robotics, the job of an Expendable is whatever dangerous or downright suicidal stuff needs to be done. When (not if) he gets killed his consciousness from him is reloaded into a clone body pulled from a vat of protein paste. All so that he can be killed again.
It’s a silly but effective premise, and Edward Ashton has a lot of fun with it in this lively SF action-comedy. Things kick off with the seventh iteration of Mickey being prematurely declared dead, thus leading to Mickeys 7 and 8 having to hide the mistake of there now being two Mickeys, as duplicate Expendables are against the rules. Meanwhile, the colony is under threat from killer bugs called “creepers.” But then, just as with Mickey, all is not what it seems.
The Young H. G. Wells: Changing The World
By Claire Tomalin
Viking, 256 pages, $42.95
Herbert George Wells may not have been the father of science fiction (other nominees would include Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and a founding mother in Mary Shelley), but he was probably its single most influential practitioner, inventing types of stories that have gone on to become standards of the genre, from time travel to alien invasion. It’s also noteworthy that he did this in just a decade’s flurry of activity, from 1895 to 1905, before gradually moving on to other interests like politics and writing a history of the world.
A creative run that lasts for about ten years is typical of most authors, and veteran biographer Claire Tomalin has wisely written a short book focusing on this hyper-productive period in Wells’s life, which was fueled by his passion for sex, socialism and science ( in that order). It’s better to give us Wells at his most vital and just skim over the long decline that followed.
How High We Go In The Dark
By Sequoia Nagamatsu
William Morrow, 304 pages, $34.99
A terrific collection of linked short stories (although it’s called a novel on the cover) about the effects of an “Arctic plague” of alien origin released by melting Siberian permafrost might seem very timely in 2022. This makes it all the more remarkable that “ How High We Got in the Dark” was mostly completed before 2020 and the outbreak of COVID.
The current working of the plague, which causes organs to start copying the function of other organs, with predictably disastrous results, aren’t as important as its human impact. These stories (calling it a novel seems more about marketing) that deal with the subject of grief and loss, especially as felt by parents and their children. Broader considerations also come into play, however, as the pandemic affects people on both a personal and political level. The funeral industry, for example, becomes a major growth sector almost overnight. Mass die-offs are good for some parts of the economy.
In the face of so much death, science throws up various surrogates for lost loved ones and family members: talking pigs, robot dogs, and even plasticized corpses. Given the subject matter, Sequoia Nagamatsu has to occasionally walk a fine line to avoid falling into sentiment. That he does so is a tribute to his imaginative range of him and how finely he explores the psychological ramifications of the end of our world.
BATTLE OF THE LINGUIST MAGES
By Scott Moore
Tor, 448 pages, $38.99
One of the hottest subgenres in SF today is what might be called videogame fiction. These books can be thought of as the children of Ready Player One, and are addressed to a gamer culture that now drives a big chunk of the entertainment industry.
“Battle of the Linguist Mages” is videogame fiction taken to a weird extreme. Isobel Bailie is at the top of the leader boards of a popular virtual-reality game called Sparkle Dungeon. There’s more to Sparkle Dungeon than rainbows and glitter though, and as the novel kicks off the company that makes the game gets Isobel involved in a real-world plan to exploit morphemes: words that have magical power based on how they are articulated. Also worth noting: punctuation marks are aliens that have escaped into our brains from another dimension.
All of this has the effect, common to most videogame fiction, of erasing the line between the real and virtual worlds. Unfortunately, it also requires a lot of exposition, and for all its flights of whimsy “Battle of the Linguist Mages” comes in feeling heavier than it should. Videogame fiction is a light genre and you don’t want to spend too much time reading the rule books.
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