Science Fiction

DREAD NATION by Justina Ireland

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Jane would have grown up a slave if not for the War Between the States. Instead, she grew up helping her white mother defend the plantation against the onslaught of the undead who began to rise after the Battle of Gettysburg. Although the agreement to end the War so that North and South could join forces against the undead shamblers included the abolition of slavery, Black people are far from equal—arguably not even free. When Jane was rounded up with the rest of the Black teens on the plantation and sent to a finishing school where she would train to defend wealthy white women from shamblers, she hoped it would be an opportunity to gain some sort of liberty and life experience. Instead, she finds herself hampered by the racism and sexism that pervade her society. But when she and a classmate uncover a deadly conspiracy, they find themselves in grave danger and caught between the desire for self-preservation and the knowledge that if they don’t do something, the entire world could be lost to the undead.

This novel is stunning: well-written, nuanced, thought-provoking, timely, and with a gripping and richly imagined historical sci-fi that is nearly impossible to put down. Jane is a compelling and complex protagonist, and it is a pleasure to root for her against both the zombies and the disturbing social institutions that try to hold her back. For all of its thrilling adventure, it never shies away from a powerful and disturbing look at racism and its impact. I loved every page and highly recommend it to teen and adult fans of sci-fi, dystopia, or even historical fiction.

THE GENIUS PLAGUE by David Walton

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It has always been Neil’s dream to follow in his father’s footsteps in the NSA. Unfortunately, he’s not quite the ideal candidate, with no college degree, no computer coding experience, and a seemingly disasterous set of missteps in his interview process. Yet somehow he lands a job on the team of NSA problem solvers tasked with cracking the impossible codes no one else can solve. At first the work is tedious, but as certain bizarre messages begin to come through, the team realizes that people all over the globe have somehow been infected with the same fungal virus that Neil’s brother, Paul, brought back from a harrowing ordeal in Brazil. Paul and the other victims exhibit advanced intelligence, but also display other behavior changes that connect them to group of Brazilian terrorists. As Neil and the team try to make sense of the seemingly impossible events unfolding around them, an international conspiracy emerges that could threaten the survival of the human race.

Fun, fast-paced, and full of interesting tidbits about mushrooms. I thoroughly enjoyed this sci-fi thriller! It’s light on the sci-fi, so a good fit for thriller fans, adult and teen!

EXCESSION by Iain M. Banks

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Culture ambassador Byr Genar-Hofoen is called away from his diplomatic mission to the warlike Affront aliens in order to undertake a secret mission for the Department of Special Circumstances.  Thousands of years ago, a star vanished, and now a mysterious thing–not a planet, not a ship, but another entity: an Excession–has appeared.  Is it a weapon?  An ally?  A group of sentient ships plots in secret, while eccentric ships act as double agents, meddling in the affairs of ships and humans.  And somehow connected to it all without knowing it, a woman living in a simulated world waits to give birth. 

In this immersive, unique, and thoroughly imagined science fiction novel, the reader must piece together seemingly unconnected or loosely connected characters and events which gradually come together into a rich image of galactic life and the prideful folly of political entities and sentient individuals (both organisms and machines).  Sometime humorous, always thought-provoking, this novel will appeal to fans of hard sci-fi.  At times, it was reminiscent of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,  but be prepared for a much denser read that demands focus, attention to detail, and occasionally, a willingness to think about math.  

THE BONE CLOCKS by David Mitchell

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Holly didn’t expect her mother to find out about Vinny so soon. She knew that her mother wouldn’t approve of an older boyfriend or the late nights that Holly spent with him. But Holly is in love, and she isn’t about to let her mother get in the way. After a quick goodbye to her little brother, Jacko,  Holly packs her things and storms out of the house only to discover that Vinny has already moved on to someone new. Furious, heartbroken, and far too embarrassed to go home, Holly starts walking away from London with no real plan of where she’s headed. But she hasn’t gone far when her bizarre past catches up with her. Memories of the voices she used to hear in her head as a child, encounters with seemingly psychic strangers, nightmarish visions, and a horrific double murder launch Holly on a lifetime journey with a cast of immortal heroes and villains that was scripted long ago.

I’m not sure whether it is more appropriate to categorize this novel as fantasy or science fiction, but its style and appeal is definitely in the realm of sci-fi. Beginning in our past and ending in our future, the story unfolds slowly over Holly’s lifetime with each chapter occurring decades after the last and from the point of view of a character whose connection to Holly is not always immediately apparent. Part of the appeal of the novel comes from this puzzle of a storytelling style.  The actual plot of the immortal good and evil is slow to unfold (as is befitting a story about characters who have lived for centuries and could live for centuries more), and as a result, the first two-thirds of the book read more as realistic fiction than science fiction. But the first chapter’s teasers and the characters themselves were interesting enough to keep me engaged through the 700 page novel, and I was impressed at how Mitchell created a distinct voice for each character’s first person chapter. I would recommend this novel to readers who enjoy weighty philosophical sci-fi and character driven novels.

ENDER’S GAME (2013)

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Director: Gavin Hood

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 114 min

Ender Wiggins was born to be a commander.  After his brilliant but sadistic older brother, Peter, was deemed too brutal, and his compassionate older sister, Valentine, deemed two mild, his parents were given special permission to have a third child.  And when Colonel Graff witnesses Ender thoroughly defeat a group of bullies, he knows that this boy is the one to lead the Earth’s forces to victory against the vicious aliens that attacked Earth a century earlier–the buggers.  Graff whisks Ender off to an outer space battle school where he is isolated and miserable.  But as he gradually learns how to beat the games the teachers throw at them, he quickly advances from launchy to soldier to commander, and earns the trust of many of his peers–and the hatred of others.

This film captures the important basics of the incredibly nuanced and complex novel of the same name.  I agree with the decision to condense the timeline from the book’s five years to only a year or two.  This allowed them to have one actor play Ender through the whole film and to create a story arc that could easily be followed in a two hour film.  But this meant seeing less of Ender’s transformation over time (they hit the highlights) and far fewer characters (a good choice–easier to keep track of).  The military strategy was also simplified and Peter and Valentine’s political personas eliminated entirely.   Despite these simplifications, the major themes of the book still came through strongly.  The visualization of battle school was very accurate and cool to see (I reread the book to see the descriptions again).  And it was an exciting and suspenseful film that you would be able to follow even if you had not read the book.

In short, a good film and very well done adaptation of the story of Ender’s Game, but not a substitute for the nuanced and thought-provoking novel.

BORN TO DARKNESS by Suzanne Brockmann

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Mac and her Obermeyer Institute colleagues aren’t sure what to expect when they begin their mission to take down and contain the latest Destiny user.  The drug enables its users to integrate their brain function at a much higher level than the average 10%, which could give them any number of superhuman abilities, including flying, telepathy, and in this case deflecting bullets. Mac and her colleagues (all of whom have integration levels of 50% and above without chemical enhancement) are finally able to take him down, but not before Mac injures breaks her ankle.  Stopping at a bar on her way home, however, she meets a former Navy SEAL, Shane Laughlin, and discovers that just by touching him, her powers to heal increase.  And their night of sex does wonders.  Thinking she can leave it as a one-night-stand, Mac is dismayed when Shane shows up at the Obermeyer Institute the next day—identified as a “potential” for high integration himself.  Though she fears where a relationship with Shane could lead, a little enhancement may come in handy when an opportunity arises to take down the merciless criminal organization that manufactures Destiny by abducting and torturing gifted teen girls and draining their blood.

I loved this fast-paced, suspenseful thriller!  The science of the sci-fi isn’t fully realized (and the directer of the OI is totally a rip-off of Professor X), but it is a cool concept.  There is lots of graphic sexual content, so if that’s something you like to avoid, this is not the book for you.  But if you like sci-fi thrillers with a bit of romance, this was an exciting one!

SHADA: THE LOST ADVENTURE BY DOUGLAS ADAMS (by Gareth Roberts)

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In the 1970s, Douglas Adams wrote a Doctor Who adventure called “Shada” which was partially filmed (with the iconic Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker) but never finished.  Doctor Who screen writer Gareth Roberts has turned Douglas Adams’ incomplete story into a fast-paced and humorous Sci-Fi novel.

The Doctor and his current traveling companion (and fellow Time Lord) Romana arrive in Cambridge to respond to a call for help from a retired Time Lord who has been posing as a Cambridge professor.  They discover that the professor has been keeping a stolen—and very powerful–Gallifreyan book in his study and has recently misplaced it, much to the Doctor’s distress.  The professor remembers that a student named Chris Parsons came and borrowed a book that afternoon, so the Doctor sets out to find him and the potentially dangerous “Artefact.”  Meanwhile, Skagra, an evil genius with mind-stealing technology, has also arrived in Cambridge with his sights set on the very same book.

Gareth Roberts does an excellent job of writing in the style of Douglas Adams.  Using much of Adams’ original dialogue and ideas, Roberts expands and completes the story of Shada in a novel that is as humorous and exciting as a Doctor Who adventure should be.  I highly recommend this novel to Douglas Adams fans, Doctor Who fans, or general Sci-Fi lovers (although if you actively dislike Doctor Who and/or Douglas Adams, this is not the book for you).