A dark vision of our near future
This month’s selections in science fiction and fantasy turn to themes as old as the story itself—the quest, whether for a panacea, vengeance, freedom or justice—and to the very roots of our civilization: muscle and morality.
Paolo Bacigalupi returns to the near-future world of his best-known short stories in his first novel, The Windup Girl. Oil is no more and coal is precious; calorie companies control the food supply with sterile grains engineered against evermutating diseases; and generippers hope to break the calorie companies’ monopoly. Set in an isolationist Thailand threatened by the rising oceans, The Windup Girl focuses on Anderson Lake, a calorie man hunting for seedbanks, along with his faithless Chinese refugee manager Hock Seng, hoping to rebuild his fortune with gigajoule kinksprings (the future equivalent of a 500 mpg engine). They encounter the Environmental Ministry ‘tiger’ Jaidee, whose war against Trade will bring revolution or disaster, and the windup girl Emiko, who dreams of escaping slavery while struggling to overcome her genetic and learned subservience. Bacigalupi is as unflinching in his examination of the unthinkable cruelty, humiliation and banal evil that humanity inflicts on the Other as he is on the bleak future that our mass consumption society will inevitably unleash. In his fictional vision, there will be no miraculous rescue from our moral or environmental sins. The Windup Girl will almost certainly be the most important SF novel of the year for its willingness to confront the most cherished notions of the genre, namely that our future is bright and we will overcome our selfish, cruel nature.
L. Jagi Lamplighter’s first novel, Prospero Lost, starts with the fabulous (entendre intended) idea that Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a mostly true story. In this contemporary retelling, Miranda is the first of Prospero’s seven children, and the only one faithful to him and their company, Prospero Inc., which is responsible for a recent decrease in natural and supernatural disasters. But Prospero has disappeared and Miranda must try to rescue him. Her only companions are the Aerie One called Mab, who dons a human disguise imitating the hard-boiled detective character—fedora, trench coat, lead pipe, notebook and sarcasm—and her brother Mephistopheles, who might be insane . . . or a demon. The rest of her siblings have problems of their own and a serious lack of concern for their sire’s possibly infernal plight. Miranda’s trouble is that her 500 years of memories are unreliable. As she searches the present for her father, she is confronted with the uncomfortable realization that neither the past nor her sainted father is what she remembers. Prospero Lost is a charming re-examination of one of the genre’s venerated ancestors, populated by a large cast skillfully drawn from history and mythology.
Keep your enemies close . . .
In Seanan McGuire’s Rosemary and Rue, October “Toby” Daye is the runaway child of a mortal and a faerie, with limited magical powers, an extended (but not immortal) lifespan and a list of friends almost as long as her enemies. She’s escaped the clutches of Devlin, another changeling, who keeps a home for such runaways. Toby is a mother and a PI. But while on a case, she is turned into a fish for 14 years. Having effectively lost her family, Toby abandons her heritage and career and barely scrapes by, until a full-blood leaves a telephone message recording her murder—a message that magically and morally compels Toby to seek the killers. Toby’s quest will lead her through the seamy underside of San Francisco and the political intricacies of the Faerie world, as she recalls old friends and collects on old debts while discovering a reality even the immortals thought mythical. Although the narrative thread is sometimes lost in the tangle of fae trivia (much of which is likely familiar to longtime genre readers and some of which is unnecessary) McGuire successfully blends Robert B. Parker-like detective fiction with love and loss, faith and betrayal—and plenty of violence. The first in McGuire’s planned trilogy, Rosemary and Rue will have readers clamoring for the next genre-bending installment.
Sean Melican is the science fiction and fantasy columnist for BookPage. In alphabetical order, he is a chemist, father, husband and writer.