Stand-Alone

These are stand alone novels (not part of a series).

Touch: A nearly perfect thriller

Touch by Claire North

Touch, by Claire North, took me completely by surprise. I’d never heard of Claire North. (Yes, I know. More about that later.) I hadn’t seen much pre-release buzz about the book. I don’t think I’d ever read a book from (Hachette imprint) Redhook before. I frankly thought the blurb sounded a bit too standard-horror-ish, but I picked it up anyway to try a few pages and see if it could draw me in.

Am I ever glad I did. Touch is a gloriously dark and almost perfectly executed novel. (More about that “almost” later, too.) It’s so good that I set out to get the author’s first novel, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, even before I finished Touch, and then read it before I got around to wr... Read More

The Saturn Game: The slippery slope of fantasy role-playing

The Saturn Game by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson’s The Saturn Game, published in 1981, is a pre-Internet era exploration of role-playing games and their effect on the human psyche, which won the 1981 Nebula and the 1982 Hugo awards for best novella.

On an eight-year long voyage to Saturn, one of the more popular ways for the crew and colonists to pass time is becoming involved in psychodramas, a verbal-type role-playing game. But when a team of four people from the spaceship lands their smaller craft on Saturn’s moon Iapetus to explore the terrain, the terrain reminds three of them so strongly of the Tolkien-esque fantasy that they have spent countless hours creating and imagining that it begins to affect their judgment and discernment. Bad decisions start to cascade as fantasy impinges on their exploratory mis... Read More

Now Wait for Last Year: A virtual compendium of Dick’s pet themes

Now Wait for Last Year by Philip K. Dick

A virtual compendium of many of Philip K. Dick's pet themes, tropes and obsessions, Now Wait for Last Year, the author's 17th published sci-fi novel, originally appeared as a Doubleday hardcover in 1966. (As revealed in Lawrence Sutin's biography on Dick, the novel was actually written as early as 1963 and rewritten two years later.) Phil was on some kind of a roll at this point in his career, having recently come out with the masterpieces The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Dr. Bloodmoney, and Now Wait for Last Year is still another great one for this important writer.

In it, the Earth of the year 2055 is in big trouble, fighting a protracted, losing war with the 6-f... Read More

Zer0es: Be careful what you hack

Zer0es by Chuck Wendig

In Chuck Wendig’s new techno-thriller novel, Zer0es, five hackers — some highly skilled, some not so skilled — are not-so-innocently going about their daily business when they are unpleasantly interrupted by a tall African-American man who introduces himself as Hollis Copper or (in one case) “Mr. Government.” This motley crew of five consists of Chance, an aspiring Anonymous-style hacker who’s more con man than computer whiz; DeAndre, a talented hacker who specialized in stealing credit card data; Aleena, an Arab Spring hacktivist; Reagan, an unhappy and vindictive Internet troll; and 63-year-old Wade, a grizzled conspiracy nut and cipherpunk who collects classified information and deeply distrusts the government.

Hollis whisks his five hackers away, less than voluntarily, to an u... Read More

The Man in the High Castle: Axis Powers win WWII, and then things get weird

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

This is a strange and sinister book, even for Philip K. Dick. It’s a carefully-crafted alternate history about a world in which the Axis powers won WWII and now dominate the globe (other notable books in this vein include Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore and Pavane by Keith Roberts), but being PKD that is just the beginning. It prominently features the I Ching (Book of Changes), an ancient Chinese classic that serves as a sort of oracle or fortune telling device for several of the characters. The Pacific States of America are dominated by the Japanese, while the former Unites States of America on the East Coast a... Read More

Horrible Monday: The Creeping by Alexandra Sirowy

The Creeping by Alexandra Sirowy

What’s more frightening: a monster lurking in the shadows, kidnapping children for its dark and nefarious purposes — or a human being who does the same, terrible thing? Are there really supernatural creatures lurking at the edge of human existence, or do we just tell ourselves stories to gloss over how awful our species can be? Even worse, what if both scenarios are true? Alexandra Sirowy explores these questions in her Young Adult debut novel, The Creeping, and I would guess that what readers think about her answers will tell you a lot about themselves and the things they fear.

When Jeanie Talcott and Stella Cambren were six years old, they went into the forest surrounding their sleepy Minnesota town to pick strawberries. Only Stella came out, wild-eyed and rambling about monsters in the woods, covered in Jeanie’s blood. Jeanie’s body was never fo... Read More

Way Station: A solitary Midwesterner holds the key to the stars

Way Station by Clifford D. Simak

Way Station is Clifford D. Simak’s 1964 Hugo Award-winning novel. By many readers it is considered his best, and it features some his favorite themes: a rugged Midwesterner who shuns society, human society flirting with nuclear disaster, a more enlightened galactic society that is wary of letting unruly humans join in, an appeal to common sense and condemnation of man’s penchant for violence.

Having recently read Simak’s 1952 fixer-up novel City, in which dogs and robots take over Earth in the far future, I’m getting a pretty good sense of the author’s likes and dislikes. He was born in a small Wisconsin town (just like my father, incidentally), attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison (also like my father), spent time working as an editor ... Read More

City: Pastoral SF classic where Rover takes over

City by Clifford D. Simak

City is a well-loved classic by Clifford D. Simak published back in 1952 and awarded the International Fantasy Award in 1954. It’s actually a collection of linked far-future stories written between 1944 and 1951 about men, mutants, dogs, robots, ants and stranger beings still. It’s told as a series of episodes that trace the evolution of the various species as they reach out to space, but also follows the fates of those groups that remain on Earth.

I would describe Simak’s writing style as “pastoral,” “contemplative,” “philosophical,” and “understated,” and as he was born in rural Wisconsin, there is a recurring theme in his books of rugged Midwestern individuals who take greater pleasure in solitude and the countryside than in crowded cities. As his favorite pasti... Read More

Bell Weather: Genre-bending adventure novel where the language is the star

Bell Weather by Dennis Mahoney

I had never heard of Dennis Mahoney before picking up Bell Weather, but the bright green ARC cover drew me in: a monochrome print of a woman framed by trees. A hummingbird with bat-wings flies overhead. And over this, in bold white letters, “Enter the world of Root.” Well, with an invitation like that, don’t mind if I do.

Bell Weather is an adventure story following a young woman named Molly Bell as she escapes from two dangerous men bent on controlling her. Molly is a fantastic heroine, kinetic and indomitable. She is described as a “quicksummer spirit.” Associated with images of flowers and flame, she embodies warmth and tenacity, clinging to life through trials that would have killed a weaker person. Near the end of the novel, her brother Nicholas describes her: “It is a quality of yours: a marvelous facility to wrigg... Read More

Dark Orbit: A rewarding high concept sci-fi novel

Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

Dark Orbit
by Carolyn Ives Gilman is a smart, thought-provoking First Contact novel that delves into questions of human perception, identity, and knowledge construction. The philosophical questions are layered atop a plot that, even if it isn’t the strength of the novel, is more than serviceable, keeping the reader’s surface attention even as the larger ideas beckon one into deeper waters.

Centuries ago the human race sent out “Quest” ships in search of habitable planets. Ship travel has since been replaced by transportation via light beam through a “Wayport,” which while overcoming the vast distances still has the problem of relativity, so that those “Wasters” who regularly travel this way give up family and friends, returning to planets where decades have passed while they themselves aged only a few months or years. Now, one of the Quest... Read More

Savages: A solid new novel by K.J. Parker

Savages by K.J. Parker

A pacifist who inherits his father's failing arms business, a general who wins all of his battles and sets in motion the fate of empires because of decisions he makes in the last second before a battle commences, a tribesman who loses his family and survives an attempt at his life to become, well, every single thing he chooses to be. Those and many other memorable characters populate K.J. Parker's newest standalone novel, Savages, a solid offering that is sure to please readers of the author's previous works.

There's a war between two nations, as there usually is, and the losing nation has managed to get a hold of a brilliant strategist by the name of Calojan, whose name means little dog in his home nation and whose father was a famous artist of pornographic paintings featuring his wife... Read More

The New Adam: Of mice and mentation

The New Adam by Stanley G. Weinbaum

Stanley G. Weinbaum was one of the great “what if…” authors in sci-fi history. Perhaps no other writer before or since has been so influential, and shown so much early promise, only to have that budding career cut tragically short. The Kentucky-born author caused a sensation when his very first tale, “A Martian Odyssey,” appeared in the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories, and its ostrichlike central alien, the unforgettable Tweel, was a true original of its kind. In a flurry of activity, Weinbaum went on to create some two dozen more short stories, plus three novels, before succumbing to lung cancer in December ’35, at the age of 33. (Robert Bloch, a friend of Weinbaum’s, has since written that he actually died of throat cancer; don’t ask me.) It had been many years since I’d read the classic Ba... Read More

This Immortal: Flamboyant New Wave SF with Greek mythic overtones

This Immortal by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny was one of the darlings of the New Wave in the 1960s, mainly with short stories, but his first novel This Immortal tied for the inaugural Nebula Award in 1966 with none other than Frank Herbert’s Dune, arguably the greatest SF novel ever. So how could this slight 174-page Ace paperback (David, if you will) rival a Goliath like Dune?

It’s the story of Conrad Nomikos, a man in charge of maintaining the ancient ruins of classical human civilization on a post-holocaust Earth scarcely-populated by humans, mutants, and fearsome mythical creatures, mainly as tourist attractions for the alien blue-skinned Vegans (no, they’re not opposed to animal... Read More

Margaret: A full-blooded swashbuckler

(Fair) Margaret by H. Rider Haggard

Every schoolchild knows that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But what about the year before that? Did anything of note happen in 1491? Well, as any reader of H. Rider Haggard's 31st novel, Margaret, will discover, the answer is: plenty! Margaret, which Haggard wrote from 1905 - ‘06, was initially published in London in September 1907 under the title Fair Margaret, and here in the U.S. with the shortened title a month later. It is one of Haggard's historical fictions, but unlike some of his other historicals, such as 1911's Red Eve, this one contains absolutely no fantasy elements to speak of (my editors here on FanLit are perhaps being indulgent and generous for allowing me to even post ... Read More

Speak Easy: Dark, scintillating Jazz Age fairy tale

Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente

I held off on reading Speak Easy by Catherynne M. Valente for a few weeks after it arrived because I knew once I started reading it, I’d want to do nothing else. When you look at the novella, this doesn’t seem like such a big problem. The advanced reader’s copy is a slim volume, thinner than my pinky finger (the signed limited-edition volumes for sale at Subterranean Press might be bigger; they are hardcovers, bound in cloth). But take a peek into the first page of Valente’s novella, and you get a sense of the denseness and beauty of her language:
There's this ragamuffin city out east, you follow? Sitting pretty with a river on each arm, lit up in her gladdest rags since 1624. She'll tell you she's seen it all, boy howdy, the deep down and the high up, champagne and syphili... Read More

Edge: Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut

Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut

[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]

This year I read or reread my favorite Kurt Vonnegut books after a two-decade gap: The Sirens of Titan (1959), Mother Night (1961), Cat’s Cradle (1963), and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). In these works, his trademark cynicism and resignation towards humanity’s recurrent vanity and folly was mitigated by his gallows humor and simple, unadorned prose. It’s a formula that r... Read More

The World Inside: High-Rise living in 2381

The World Inside by Robert Silverberg

In Robert Silverberg's 1970 novel Tower of Glass, obsessed business magnate Simeon Krug builds a 1,500-meter-high structure to enable him to communicate with the stars, and since 1,500 meters is roughly equal to 4,500 feet, or more than three Empire State Buildings, the reader is suitably impressed. But the following year, in his novel The World Inside, Silverberg wrote of a group of buildings that make Krug's structure look like a pip-squeak. This was just one of four major sci-fi novels released by Silverberg in 1971, the others being The Second Trip, Son of Man and A Time of Changes (all of which I have previously written of here on FanLit). The Read More

Hothouse: Fertile and bizarre plant life, but human characters are pretty wooden

Hothouse by Brian W. Aldiss

Yeah, Brian W. AldissHothouse (1962) was definitely written with some chemical assistance. Maybe some LSD-spiked vegetable juice? It may have been written as a set of five short stories in 1961, but it’s a timeless and bizarre story of a million years in the future when the plants have completely taken over the planet, which has stopped rotating, and humans are little green creatures hustling to avoid becoming plant food.

There are hundreds of fearsome carnivorous plants that would love to eat human morsels, but will gladly settle for eating each other instead. As the planet has come to a stop, a massive banyan tree now covers the sunny-side of the planet, with all other plants surviving in its shade. But there are gargantuan plant-based spiders called traversers who dwell above the plant layer and actually spin webs across space to the moon and other pla... Read More

Armada: Fun tribute to Last Starfighter, Ender’s Game, and Star Wars

Armada by Ernest Cline

Armada is the sophomore effort from Ernest Cline, who burst onto the SF scene with the wildly-popular Ready Player One, a fun-filled romp through 80s pop culture via a virtual reality game that managed to skillfully depict a dystopian future and also be a rollicking adventure and coming-of-age tale. The secret to Ready Player One’s success was that you could still enjoy it without catching every obscure geek reference, but many readers who grew up in the 80s absolutely loved it.

There’s an old adage about “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” so it makes perfect sense for Ernest Cline to go back to the well for another bucketful of nerdy 80s gamer trivia and ladle on generous... Read More

The Diamond Age: Rough, but still a diamond

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age is set in a near future that is unrecognizable in some ways and disturbingly familiar in other ways. Nations have dissolved and people now tend to congregate in tribes or “phyles” based upon their culture, race, beliefs or skills. Nanotechnology has upended society, and even the poorest people have access to matter compilers that create clothing, food and other items from a feed of molecules. Still, the lack of education and opportunities for the underclass has created a wide division between them and a wealthy phyle like the Neo-Victorians, who have adopted the manners and society of the British Victorian age.

John Hackworth is a brilliant nanotechnologist who lives with and works for the neo-Vict... Read More

The Starmen of Llyrdis: A small but perfect gem from “The Queen of Space Opera”

The Starmen of Llyrdis by Leigh Brackett

For fans of sci-fi’s Golden Age, it has been a sort of literary guessing game to riddle out which stories were written by Henry Kuttner and which by his wife, C.L. Moore. And this has proved to be no easy task, as the two, as legend goes, were so in rapport that one could pick up in mid-paragraph where the other had left off. But for several reasons, no such difficulty could ever be presented by Golden Age stalwart Edmond “The World Wrecker” Hamilton and his wife, “The Queen of Space Opera,” Leigh Brackett. For one thing, their writing styles were so very different that they hardly ever collaborated. Hamilton, who I love, and who was 11 years older than Leigh, ... Read More

Redshirts: Fun metafiction for SF fans, but not worthy of a Hugo Award

Redshirts by John Scalzi

I take it you all know Star Trek, Deep Space Nine, Red Dwarf, etc. Have you seen Galaxy Quest? Stranger than Fiction? Saturday Night Live? Well, if you just throw them all together with a paper-thin plot, interchangeable characters, snarky dialogue that’s pretty funny, absolutely zero physical descriptions, and three codas featuring minor characters that try to shift the story’s tone, and you’ve got John Scalzi’s Redshirts.

Sounds like poorly edited, slapdash fiction written for a loyal, unquestioning fanbase? Not at all, this is META fiction, so anything that seems lazy, clichéd, or nonsensical is actually SUPPOSED TO BE, ‘cause this is META fiction that is ridiculing such poor writing and tired genre tropes. Get it? So clever... Read More

EDGE: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
by Natasha Pulley is a charming character-driven novel that is just the sort I often love. I didn’t quite fall all the way for this one, but I absolutely enjoyed it despite a few niggling complaints and happily recommend it.

The setting is London in the late 1800s, during a time of Fenian bombings that have set the city on edge. Nathaniel Steepleton is a telegrapher out of the Home Office who gets mixed up in the investigations all thanks to an incredibly intricate watch that was anonymous... Read More

EDGE: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.

The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler, is one of those perplexing novels I come across now and then where the book has everything I would usually lap up as a reader, but for some reason it falls just a little flat, resulting in a book that is "good enough," but falls short of the great read I would normally have expected.

In this case, the specific enticing novelistic elements are: a book within a book, a traveling carnival/circus, a non-linear structure, a main character who is a librarian and another who deals in old books, a quir... Read More

Dying Inside: Inside the mind of a mind reader

Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg

Although author Robert Silverberg had come out with no fewer than 21 major science-fiction novels between the years 1967 and '71, by 1972, his formerly unstoppable output was beginning to slow down. He released only two novels in '72, The Book of Skulls, in which four young men seek the secret of immortality in the desert Southwest, and one of his most renowned, Dying Inside. After this latter work, there would be no full-length works until 1975's The Stochastic Man and 1976's Shadrach in the Furnace, which work put an end to Silverberg's famous "second phase" ... till he came roaring back four years later with the commencement of his Majipoor cycle. The novel in question, Dying... Read More