Walking to Aldebaran: Adrian Tchaikovsky

★★★★

Gary Rendell is living the dream. One of a handpicked international team of astronauts on board the Quixote, he’s been sent out to the very edge of the solar system to investigate a strange, gravity-defying structure known variously as the Artefact or the Frog God, due to the gaping holes in its surface that suggest eyes and a mouth. There’s no doubt that this object has been constructed by intelligent beings, but what is it? Gary and his team are there to find out. But when we meet Gary, some time after their expedition sets out into the Artefact, dream has become nightmare. He’s alone, desperate, driven half-mad by the psychological tricks of this alien labyrinth. As he fumbles his way through the darkness, he becomes aware of something scratching at the edge of his mind; something calling him; luring him. But Gary Rendell is in no mood to be lured. He’s been through hell and back; these endless corridors have changed him, and all he wants is to get home. But, when we’ve experienced so much, is it ever possible to go home? There’s certainly a monster in this dark esoteric maze; but is Gary its victim?

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Vox: Christina Dalcher

★★★★

Jean McClellan’s life has become one of few words. It wasn’t always this way. She was once a brilliant neurolinguist, running a groundbreaking team of researchers. But now, every time she speaks, the metal counter on her wrist ticks down from the daily allowance of 100 to the grim nullity of 0. To speak after the counter reaches 0 is to risk a series of rapidly intensifying electric shocks. All women in the US have been issued with these counters, from infants to the elderly, round about the same time that they were removed wholesale from the workforce and sent back to their ‘proper’ place in the home. Now Jean lives in a daze of depression, watching her four children adjust to a world in which women are penalised, and longing for her lacklustre husband Patrick to make a stand against these wretched innovations. But, with the weak President following the lead of the charismatic, dangerous conservative Reverend Carl Corbin, and the unreformed masses baying for the blood of those who step out of line, what’s the chance of change? Sobering and scary, this is The Handmaid’s Tale for our time, which should be read both by women and men: an all-too-plausible next step to damnation.

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Our Life in the Forest: Marie Darrieussecq

★★½

The future. Near? Distant? It’s hard to say. A woman writes in an old notebook in a forest, hurrying to get everything down. She’s cold, tired, falling to pieces. She and her companions are fugitives from the status quo and the government will find them, soon. They’ve done their best, but is that enough? What does it achieve? There isn’t much time but someone has to record the truth. And so this woman, formerly a psychologist, turns her gaze upon herself: her privileged position as one of the social elite, measured not by wealth or status but by the fact that she has a ‘half’, a clone, identical in all ways to herself, a second body kept in permanent sleep, yet always ready to replace any of her organs or body parts that malfunction. Hers is a story of gradual ethical awakening, of questioning, prompted by the arrival in her office one day of an unusual patient: the ‘clicker’. Darrieussecq’s novel is a curious beast: somewhat half-baked, somewhere along the line between sci-fi novel and ethical fable. It will inevitably be compared to Kashuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but differs in one crucial aspect: a lack of heart.

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Lock In: John Scalzi

★★★★

Yesterday was my last free day before the New Year, so I indulged myself with a book binge, having been to the library on Saturday. John Scalzi’s novel is already tipped as being a modern sci-fi classic, its central concept all too plausible for an alarmingly near future. Set in a world some fifteen years in the future, it shows us the aftermath of Haden’s Syndrome, a global flu-like epidemic, which leaves many of its sufferers ‘locked in’ to their bodies. Thanks to a rapid advance in science, these ‘Hadens’ are able to access and interact with the world through specially-implanted neural pathways which allow them to control mechanised bodies, or ‘threeps’ (named for C-3PO). One such Haden is Chris Shane, the only child of a wealthy would-be senator, who contracted the disease as an infant and has spent his life as the poster-boy for an increasingly powerful lobby group. But now he wants to escape his privilege and give something back, working as an FBI agent. It’s just sod’s law that his first day on the job coincides with a murder case that looks set to upend everything he knows. Part sci-fi, part FBI gumshoe procedural, this is a ridiculously gripping book stuffed with incredible ideas.

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Just One Damned Thing After Another: Jodi Taylor

★★★★

The Chronicles of St Mary’s: Book I

Madeleine Maxwell – short, opinionated redhead – is a maverick. She’s also an historian, which amounts to much the same thing. At school, Max is saved by her teacher Mrs De Winter, who channels her disruptive tendencies into a deep passion for history. Many years later, having gained her PhD from the University of Thirsk, Max has a second reason to thank Mrs De Winter, who puts her up for a job at the St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. The historians of St Mary’s have a public reputation as eccentric, shabby and lovable: a band of chaotic academics who pursue the bits of history that others don’t reach. How do you drive a quadriga? How far could Icarus have flown? What are the constituents of Greek fire? But the initiated soon learn a different story. Once Max has passed her interview, she enters a thrilling world where ‘practical history’ takes on a whole new meaning. For St Mary’s have discovered the secrets of time-travel, and there are no limits to their research. A roistering tale of historical skulduggery, physics, and plenty of tea, this is a glorious, geeky gem of a book: historian’s catnip.

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: Becky Chambers

★★★★

Wayfarers: Book I

Despite enjoying the recent reboot of the Star Trek series, I’ve never been much of a girl for spaceship-based sci-fi. However, I’ve been seeing this book pretty much everywhere for the last three years, and my powers of resistance only go so far. And what a pleasure it was to finally read it! Equal parts space opera and character piece, it takes us onto the tunnelling ship Wayfarer – scruffy, banged together, and home to a hugely lovable crew. This is more a story about friendship, compassion, tolerance and cooperation than it is about techno-jargon or deep-space exploration: at its heart is a group of people, of various species, who have lived and worked together long enough that they have become a kind of endearingly dysfunctional family. And, as the novel opens, they have a new addition to their numbers: Rosemary Harper, freshly-trained clerk and space newbie, who is willing to go to the other end of the galaxy to escape her past.

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The Last Children of Tokyo: Yoko Tawada

★★½

I keep reading modern Japanese fiction in the hope that, one day, it will suddenly all make sense; but it hasn’t happened yet. This slim little book is, for the most part, a gentle and achingly tragic tale of a near future that feels all too plausible. Environmental and nuclear catastrophe has led to political isolationism, mass extinction and the reversal of the natural order: the old remain spry and sprightly into extreme old age, while the children suffer from genetic mutations and endemic sickness. We watch an old man struggling to care for his great-grandson, and trying to come to terms with the guilt of an entire generation. It all flows along terribly well until the last pages, when a sudden and utterly unnecessary narrative shift leaves you floundering at the final curtain.

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Witchmark: C.L. Polk

★★★½

The Kingston Cycle: Book I

Miles Singer is a psychiatrist at Beauregard Veterans’ Hospital, treating men who’ve come back from the front line shattered by their experiences in war. A former soldier himself, Miles knows only too well what they’re going through and he does all he can to help them; but he must be careful not to be too clever with his healing. For Miles is in hiding: a magically-gifted member of one of Aeland’s greatest families, who has escaped his family and his destiny to find his vocation elsewhere. Better that he should help these men, than spend his life as a moderately-talented Secondary, bound as a source to his more talented Storm-Singer sister Grace. Unfortunately, his family don’t agree. And, when a dying man turns up at his hospital one day, with Miles’s real name on his lips, claiming to have been poisoned, Miles will find that he can no longer keep at a distance from his powerful clan. But at what cost? For he isn’t the only one with secrets.

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Space Opera: Catherynne M. Valente

★★★

‘In space, everyone can hear you sing’. That tagline more or less sums up the spirit of this novel. When I said that I was looking forward to reading more of Catherynne M. Valente’s work, I wasn’t expecting anything quite like this. I don’t even know if I can conjure up its atmosphere for you. Imagine if Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams got together, drank a bottle of gin, smoked something illegal, watched Velvet Goldmine, and then decided to write an intergalactic, sequin-drenched skit on the Eurovision Song Contest. And turned it up to eleven. It’s mad. No, it’s more than that: it’s exuberantly, gleefully insane. Its labyrinthine sentences spill over the pages like a Victorian lady bursting from a corset several sizes too small. But perhaps the biggest surprise is its humour: an anarchist, deliberately absurdist brand which feels very, very British.

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The Museum of Second Chances: A.E. Warren

★★★

Museums and curators don’t have enough of a place in fiction in my opinion, unless they’re doing something frankly unlikely, like hunting down relics in the Amazon. And so I pounced on this novel about a post-apocalyptic future in which a new society is doing its best to overcome the tragedies of extinction – but at what cost? It starts with a young woman getting her dream job. Unlike other Sapiens teenagers at Thymine Base, Elise Thanton isn’t going to spend her life slaving in the manufacturing factories. On the contrary, she’s about to become the Companion to one of the exhibits at the Base’s Museum of Evolution. Her experiences will lead her to question the justice of the world in which she has grown up, and to confront the very nature of humanity itself.

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