Friday, June 22, 2018

OTHERWORLDLY Heart-Hammering Science Fiction and Fantasy Thrillers Image CreditJing Wei By Amal El-Mohtar June 22, 2018 Science fiction and fantasy thrillers are often seen as frivolous, action-packed page turners, as critically dismissed as they are compulsively consumed. But a fast pace is more than a generic quality; speed today deserves attention as a subject in its own right, whether in the propagation of misinformation through social networks, the opaque and instantaneous transfers of capital into cryptocurrencies and tax havens or the cataclysmic changes in our climate. The acceleration at the hearts of these vast structures and systems is outpacing our ability to discuss and constrain their effects on us — so here are some books that work hard to catch up. Claire North’s 84K (Orbit, paper, $15.99) is a vicious, engrossing portrait of unregulated capitalism carried to its logical conclusion. In a near-future Britain, human rights have been abolished; people are only as important as their worth to the Company that runs the government. People convicted of crimes, no matter how heinous, are fined; failure to pay sends them to “the patty line,” where they work in indentured servitude until they’ve settled their debt to society. Functionally, what this means is that the wealthy can do whatever they please while more and more people are forced into work camps, especially as it’s cheaper for the Company to employ those who’ve been convicted of crimes than those who haven’t. Theo Miller is an adjuster employed by the Criminal Audit Office. His job is to determine the value of human lives and the indemnity owed for any given crime. But Theo — a milquetoast, middle-class middleman — isn’t entirely what he seems: His name and history are a lie. When Dani Cumali, a woman from his secret past, turns up threatening to expose him, he grudgingly helps her — until he finds her dead, her assassin casually phoning in the murder in order to pay the indemnity. From that point on, Theo takes up Dani’s struggle to reveal the depth and breadth of the Company’s evil. “84K” is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s a terrifying look at capitalism’s slippery slopes and a realistic depiction of how a person’s will can shrivel into apathy and fear. On the other, it’s not an easy reading experience. This may be intentional on North’s part as a sort of structural storytelling: Capitalism is vague and diffuse, so why shouldn’t the narration follow suit? North has used carriage returns as punctuation in other novels, but usually for mechanical reasons, like indicating a body swap; in “84K,” random line breaks combine with almost constant ellipses to lend the novel a distracted air, where no one seems able to carry a thought to its conclusion. This is a deliberate stylistic choice — but it’s also exasperating, even allowing for the fact that Theo is meant to be an exasperating character, an Everyman whose motivations are arbitrary and haphazard. ADVERTISEMENT That aside, “84K” is absorbing and timely; a book to wrestle and argue with, but first and foremost, to read. ♦ Nicola Griffith’s SO LUCKY (MCD X FSG Originals, paper, $15) is a compact, brutal story of losing power and creating community, fast-paced as a punch in the face. Mara Tagarelli, director of the Georgia AIDS Partnership, is used to fighting her way to victory on others’ behalf — but shortly after separating from her wife of 14 years, she loses her job and learns she has multiple sclerosis. Finding few resources available to people with M.S., Mara sets out to create them. But as she navigates the disease’s effect on her life, job and relationships, she grows aware of a shadowy, grinning thing stalking her peripheral vision — and becomes certain that a string of murders and home invasions is targeting the community she’s building. You have 4 free articles remaining. Subscribe to The Times “So Lucky” is beautifully written, with a flexible, efficient precision that embodies the protagonist’s voice and character. Like “84K,” it draws attention to people on society’s margins and the behavior of those who think ignoring misfortune will prevent it from happening to them. But unlike “84K,” where the prevailing tone is helplessness and cautionary horror, “So Lucky” is a shot of angry adrenaline. It’s also welcome and wonderful to see a book that shows queer women dealing with the aftermath of divorce and the tangled difficulties of turning deep friendship into long-distance romance. And Mara is frequently terrible, which I appreciated more than I can easily say. I’m hungry for depictions of women who make bad decisions and wrestle with the consequences, who shed prejudice and learn compassion, who are more than aspirational figureheads. ♦ I loved the protagonist of Rebecca Roanhorse’s TRAIL OF LIGHTNING (Saga, paper, $16.99) for similar reasons. Maggie Hoskie inhabits a world only a few years in our future, where energy wars have culminated in a cataclysmic flooding called the Big Water, and the Navajo reservation has saved itself with supernatural help, sprouting enormous walls of white shell, turquoise, abalone and jet around its borders. Within them, the reservation has become the nation of Dinétah — but while the worst of the apocalypse has been kept out, Dinétah has its own problems. The Big Water has ushered in the Sixth World, and with it, all the spirits and monsters that used to inhabit people’s dreams. EDITORS’ PICKS The Billion-Dollar Business of Migrant Shelters Climate Change Brought a Lobster Boom. Now It Could Cause a Bust. Untrodden Broadway: The Hidden Gems of a World-Famous Street ADVERTISEMENT Maggie is a monster hunter who emerges from isolation to help find a missing girl — but the creature that stole her is rooted in parts of Maggie’s past she’d rather not confront. Since Maggie needs help investigating this new threat, her adopted grandfather suggests she work with his smooth-talking grandson Kai. Short on friends and long on enemies, Maggie lets him tag along. Maggie is brusque and antisocial, and she carries her own weight in pain and doubt; the interplay between her and sunny Kai is delightful. I loved the world-building, too: After decades of reading genre futures in which black and brown people don’t exist, it’s deeply satisfying to find fiction in which histories of genocide actually equip them to survive disasters. As Maggie observes: “The Diné had already suffered their apocalypse over a century before. This wasn’t our end. This was our rebirth.” But problems of plot and motivation nagged me throughout. In the book’s opening encounter, Maggie takes grotesque action on a flawed premise — but that first action is never revisited or questioned once Maggie learns better. Nor was the plot’s resolution as satisfying as it could have been, though it neatly sets up a sequel. Ultimately, “Trail of Lightning” made me want nothing so much as a television show. Someone please cancel “Supernatural” already and give us at least five seasons of this badass indigenous monster-hunter and her silver-tongued sidekick. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the next volume. ♦ In a setting that could be a prequel to “Trail of Lightning,” Eliot Peper’s BANDWIDTH (47North, $24.95) is a thoughtful meditation on the ethics of power among those who broker it. Not far in our future, San Diego is a perpetually burning wasteland, the Arctic has melted and Dag Calhoun, a partner at a lobbying firm called Apex Group, helps rich people get richer from catastrophe. But while working on behalf of Commonwealth, a company that provides internet to most of the planet, Dag is recruited by a secret organization called the Island. Their ability to hack into people’s feeds — the augmented reality through which everyone experiences the world — grants them unprecedented powers of surveillance and persuasion. But while Dag’s in the business of breaking the world, the Island’s in the business of saving it — and they want Dag to be their double agent. “Bandwidth” is a book that savors everything: Dag dwells as much in the scents and tastes of coffee and tequila as he does in philosophical problems of means justifying ends and the limits of ethical persuasion. Peper manages a great deal of complexity without sacrificing clarity or pace, and I read it all in a single fascinated sitting. ADVERTISEMENT That said, the book gives me pause where its women are concerned. A portion of the plot hinges on the premise that one’s sexual predilections can be deliberately and artificially curated, and while I could see the effort made to embed that premise in the novel’s context, it still left a bad taste in my mouth; similar logic underpins rhetoric about “turning people gay” or “curing” homosexuality. Still, the depth and vulnerability of Dag’s perspective, his loneliness and the value he places on his few real friendships, kept “Bandwidth” feeling real and urgent. In an afterword, Peper observes that “in an age of acceleration, contemplation is power.” It’s a good note on which to end — perhaps with an exhortation to digital readers to seek this column in print, where you can linger and contemplate to your heart’s content. Amal El-Mohtar won the Nebula, Locus and Hugo awards for her short story “Seasons of Glass and Iron.” Her novella “This Is How You Lose the Time War,” written with Max Gladstone, will be published in 2019. Follow New York Times Books on Facebook and Twitter, sign up for our newsletter or our literary calendar. And listen to us on the Book Review podcast. A version of this article appears in print on June 24, 2018, on Page 17 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Science Ficition and Fantasy. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

OTHERWORLDLY

Heart-Hammering Science Fiction and Fantasy Thrillers

Image
CreditJing Wei
By Amal El-Mohtar
Science fiction and fantasy thrillers are often seen as frivolous, action-packed page turners, as critically dismissed as they are compulsively consumed. But a fast pace is more than a generic quality; speed today deserves attention as a subject in its own right, whether in the propagation of misinformation through social networks, the opaque and instantaneous transfers of capital into cryptocurrencies and tax havens or the cataclysmic changes in our climate. The acceleration at the hearts of these vast structures and systems is outpacing our ability to discuss and constrain their effects on us — so here are some books that work hard to catch up.
Claire North’s 84K (Orbit, paper, $15.99) is a vicious, engrossing portrait of unregulated capitalism carried to its logical conclusion. In a near-future Britain, human rights have been abolished; people are only as important as their worth to the Company that runs the government. People convicted of crimes, no matter how heinous, are fined; failure to pay sends them to “the patty line,” where they work in indentured servitude until they’ve settled their debt to society. Functionally, what this means is that the wealthy can do whatever they please while more and more people are forced into work camps, especially as it’s cheaper for the Company to employ those who’ve been convicted of crimes than those who haven’t.
Theo Miller is an adjuster employed by the Criminal Audit Office. His job is to determine the value of human lives and the indemnity owed for any given crime. But Theo — a milquetoast, middle-class middleman — isn’t entirely what he seems: His name and history are a lie. When Dani Cumali, a woman from his secret past, turns up threatening to expose him, he grudgingly helps her — until he finds her dead, her assassin casually phoning in the murder in order to pay the indemnity. From that point on, Theo takes up Dani’s struggle to reveal the depth and breadth of the Company’s evil.
“84K” is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s a terrifying look at capitalism’s slippery slopes and a realistic depiction of how a person’s will can shrivel into apathy and fear. On the other, it’s not an easy reading experience. This may be intentional on North’s part as a sort of structural storytelling: Capitalism is vague and diffuse, so why shouldn’t the narration follow suit? North has used carriage returns as punctuation in other novels, but usually for mechanical reasons, like indicating a body swap; in “84K,” random line breaks combine with almost constant ellipses to lend the novel a distracted air, where no one seems able to carry a thought to its conclusion. This is a deliberate stylistic choice — but it’s also exasperating, even allowing for the fact that Theo is meant to be an exasperating character, an Everyman whose motivations are arbitrary and haphazard.
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That aside, “84K” is absorbing and timely; a book to wrestle and argue with, but first and foremost, to read.
Nicola Griffith’s SO LUCKY (MCD X FSG Originals, paper, $15) is a compact, brutal story of losing power and creating community, fast-paced as a punch in the face. Mara Tagarelli, director of the Georgia AIDS Partnership, is used to fighting her way to victory on others’ behalf — but shortly after separating from her wife of 14 years, she loses her job and learns she has multiple sclerosis. Finding few resources available to people with M.S., Mara sets out to create them. But as she navigates the disease’s effect on her life, job and relationships, she grows aware of a shadowy, grinning thing stalking her peripheral vision — and becomes certain that a string of murders and home invasions is targeting the community she’s building.
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“So Lucky” is beautifully written, with a flexible, efficient precision that embodies the protagonist’s voice and character. Like “84K,” it draws attention to people on society’s margins and the behavior of those who think ignoring misfortune will prevent it from happening to them. But unlike “84K,” where the prevailing tone is helplessness and cautionary horror, “So Lucky” is a shot of angry adrenaline.
It’s also welcome and wonderful to see a book that shows queer women dealing with the aftermath of divorce and the tangled difficulties of turning deep friendship into long-distance romance. And Mara is frequently terrible, which I appreciated more than I can easily say. I’m hungry for depictions of women who make bad decisions and wrestle with the consequences, who shed prejudice and learn compassion, who are more than aspirational figureheads.
I loved the protagonist of Rebecca Roanhorse’s TRAIL OF LIGHTNING (Saga, paper, $16.99) for similar reasons. Maggie Hoskie inhabits a world only a few years in our future, where energy wars have culminated in a cataclysmic flooding called the Big Water, and the Navajo reservation has saved itself with supernatural help, sprouting enormous walls of white shell, turquoise, abalone and jet around its borders. Within them, the reservation has become the nation of Dinétah — but while the worst of the apocalypse has been kept out, Dinétah has its own problems. The Big Water has ushered in the Sixth World, and with it, all the spirits and monsters that used to inhabit people’s dreams.
ADVERTISEMENT
Maggie is a monster hunter who emerges from isolation to help find a missing girl — but the creature that stole her is rooted in parts of Maggie’s past she’d rather not confront. Since Maggie needs help investigating this new threat, her adopted grandfather suggests she work with his smooth-talking grandson Kai. Short on friends and long on enemies, Maggie lets him tag along.
Maggie is brusque and antisocial, and she carries her own weight in pain and doubt; the interplay between her and sunny Kai is delightful. I loved the world-building, too: After decades of reading genre futures in which black and brown people don’t exist, it’s deeply satisfying to find fiction in which histories of genocide actually equip them to survive disasters. As Maggie observes: “The Diné had already suffered their apocalypse over a century before. This wasn’t our end. This was our rebirth.”
But problems of plot and motivation nagged me throughout. In the book’s opening encounter, Maggie takes grotesque action on a flawed premise — but that first action is never revisited or questioned once Maggie learns better. Nor was the plot’s resolution as satisfying as it could have been, though it neatly sets up a sequel.
Ultimately, “Trail of Lightning” made me want nothing so much as a television show. Someone please cancel “Supernatural” already and give us at least five seasons of this badass indigenous monster-hunter and her silver-tongued sidekick. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the next volume.
In a setting that could be a prequel to “Trail of Lightning,” Eliot Peper’sBANDWIDTH (47North, $24.95) is a thoughtful meditation on the ethics of power among those who broker it. Not far in our future, San Diego is a perpetually burning wasteland, the Arctic has melted and Dag Calhoun, a partner at a lobbying firm called Apex Group, helps rich people get richer from catastrophe.
But while working on behalf of Commonwealth, a company that provides internet to most of the planet, Dag is recruited by a secret organization called the Island. Their ability to hack into people’s feeds — the augmented reality through which everyone experiences the world — grants them unprecedented powers of surveillance and persuasion. But while Dag’s in the business of breaking the world, the Island’s in the business of saving it — and they want Dag to be their double agent.
“Bandwidth” is a book that savors everything: Dag dwells as much in the scents and tastes of coffee and tequila as he does in philosophical problems of means justifying ends and the limits of ethical persuasion. Peper manages a great deal of complexity without sacrificing clarity or pace, and I read it all in a single fascinated sitting.
ADVERTISEMENT
That said, the book gives me pause where its women are concerned. A portion of the plot hinges on the premise that one’s sexual predilections can be deliberately and artificially curated, and while I could see the effort made to embed that premise in the novel’s context, it still left a bad taste in my mouth; similar logic underpins rhetoric about “turning people gay” or “curing” homosexuality. Still, the depth and vulnerability of Dag’s perspective, his loneliness and the value he places on his few real friendships, kept “Bandwidth” feeling real and urgent.
In an afterword, Peper observes that “in an age of acceleration, contemplation is power.” It’s a good note on which to end — perhaps with an exhortation to digital readers to seek this column in print, where you can linger and contemplate to your heart’s content.


Amal El-Mohtar won the Nebula, Locus and Hugo awards for her short story “Seasons of Glass and Iron.” Her novella “This Is How You Lose the Time War,” written with Max Gladstone, will be published in 2019.
Follow New York Times Books on Facebook and Twitter, sign up for our newsletter or our literary calendar. And listen to us on the Book Review podcast.
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 17 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Science Ficition and FantasyOrder Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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