SCIENCE FIC­TION: ALEX GOOD

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS -

Last Year By Robert Charles Wil­son (Tor, $38.99, 352 pages)

If the past is a for­eign coun­try, it’s also a heck of a tourist des­ti­na­tion.

That’s what has hap­pened in Robert Charles Wil­son’s lat­est, as a time-travel ma­chine known as the Mir­ror al­lows cit­i­zens of the 21st cen­tury to visit yes­ter­year — specif­i­cally an ac­cess point in the 1870s, built on the plains of Illi­nois where the deer and the an­te­lope still play and where a freshly built City of Fu­tu­rity serves as an in­tertem­po­ral trans­porta­tion hub. Wil­son is less in­ter­ested in how the Mir­ror op­er­ates than he is in the ways now and then in­ter­act. This is dra­ma­tized in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween two se­cu­rity of­fi­cers: one a 19th-cen­tury na­tive with a check­ered past and the other a hard-nosed 21st-cen­tury sin­gle mom. Run­ning be­neath the ac­tion-filled plot there are some provoca­tive ques­tions raised about progress and con­ti­nu­ity.

The Lib­er­a­tion By Ian Tregillis (Or­bit, $22.49, 453 pages)

“The Lib­er­a­tion” brings to a vi­o­lent, tri­umphant con­clu­sion Ian Tregillis’s epic Alchemy Wars Tril­ogy: one of the most en­ter­tain­ing, orig­i­nal, and thought-pro­vok­ing se­ries of re­cent years. With the ris­ing of the lib­er­ated Clakkers (me­chan­i­cal be­ings made to pro­vide au­to­mated slave labour), the world is now torn by con­flict among three power bases: the tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced Dutch with their al­chem­i­cal wizardry, a de­cay­ing French an­cien régime, and the newly class-con­scious Clakkers. Tregillis uses al­ter­na­tive his­tory bril­liantly to ex­plore con­cerns we still have over new tech­nolo­gies and their po­ten­tial ef­fect, for good and ill, on our free­dom.

A Per­fect Ma­chine By Brett Sa­vory (An­gry Robot, $10.99, 313 pages)

“A Per­fect Ma­chine” is a spec­u­la­tive novel set in a par­tic­u­lar type of al­ter­na­tive uni­verse you may be f amil­iar with: the city as lab ex­per­i­ment. The set­ting is a generic ur­ban land­scape that’s set up as a maze for peo­ple to run through like rats. In this par­tic­u­lar city a se­lect group of peo­ple, known as run­ners, seek to avoid an­other group, the hunters, in a game dubbed the In­ferne Cutis. Run­ners are shot and killed by the hunters and then brought back to life, with their mem­o­ries par­tially wiped and their bod­ies filled with lead. Brett Sa­vory may be ad­dress­ing our anx­i­ety that tech­nol­ogy, is ex­per­i­ment­ing with us, and forc­ing us to adapt and evolve into some­thing new and very dif­fer­ent. Mean­while, the fi­nal wed­ding of hu­man and ma­chine is not a con­sum­ma­tion de­voutly to be wished, as there’s no telling what we might lose when we take that next step. In the fu­ture, will we even re­mem­ber what we were?

NK3 By Michael Tolkin (At­lantic Monthly Press, $36.50, 320 pages)

Loss of mem­ory plays a key role in “NK3.” The ti­tle comes from the name given to a virus orig­i­nat­ing in North Korea that has the ef­fect of eras­ing peo­ple’s mem­o­ries to vary­ing de­grees. In a burnt-over Los An­ge­les, a new so­cial hi­er­ar­chy has de­vel­oped: the Ver­i­fied, those re­tain­ing some ves­ti­gial sense of their past, live in­side a gi­ant se­cu­rity Fence, while Drifters and Sham­blers wan­der out­side. The plot matches up well, be­ing com­plex with­out any sin­gle fo­cus, skip­ping among dozens of dif­fer­ent play­ers who aren’t even sure who they are much less what they are do­ing. It’s even dif­fi­cult to pin down a con­sis­tent tone, as the story is by turns mys­ti­cal, comic, philo­soph­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal. The re­sult­ing chaos may frus­trate read­ers look­ing for some­thing con­ven­tional, but for those pre­fer­ring abrupt, dis­con­tin­u­ous, cin­e­matic forms of nar­ra­tive, “NK3” will be just the ticket.

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