Sci-fi nov­els that travel to the near fu­ture

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Swapna Krishna Krishna writes for Paste Mag­a­zine and Syfy Wire.

When you hear “sci­ence fic­tion,” it’s easy to think of sto­ries set in the an un­rec­og­niz­able, far-flung fu­ture. But some of the best sci-fi be­ing writ­ten is set in a fu­ture that isn’t too dis­tant from ours. Near­future sci­ence fic­tion fo­cuses on is­sues we’re grap­pling with, imag­in­ing what the world will be like in just a few decades. From vir­tual re­al­ity to a mis­sion to Mars, these books fo­cus on the prob­lems and chal­lenges we’re fac­ing and take them to the next level.

Want Cindy Pon Simon Pulse, $18.99

Ja­son Zhou lives in a near­future Taipei where air pol­lu­tion is ram­pant. With­out a (very ex­pen­sive) pro­tec­tive suit, peo­ple don’t live much past age 40 in this young adult novel. With ex­pert pac­ing and poignant so­cial com­men­tary, Pon tells the story of a world in which the line be­tween haves and have nots has never been more stark. Pon also cre­ates an ex­cel­lent, vi­brant char­ac­ter within Ja­son, whose emo­tions run deep. He goes un­der­cover with the wealth­i­est in so­ci­ety to un­cover a con­spir­acy be­hind the pol­luted air. While this world may be bleak, Pon’s tale of a group of young peo­ple who want to make a dif­fer­ence in their dif­fi­cult world is a re­ward­ing and ul­ti­mately up­lift­ing story.

Hold Back the Stars Katie Khan Gallery Books, $26

What would you do if you were trapped in space with only 90 min­utes of air left? That’s the premise of Katie Khan’s “Hold Back the Stars,” fea­tur­ing Carys and Max, two lovers who are ma­rooned in space after a freak ac­ci­dent. As they try to find a way to save them­selves, they re­flect on their time to­gether and the cir­cum­stances that brought them to this point. It feels a lit­tle trite at times, es­pe­cially when the char­ac­ters fall into rev­erie in the mid­dle of solv­ing a ma­jor prob­lem, but it al­lows the reader a com­pre­hen­sive view of their past re­la­tion­ship. Carys and Max aren’t al­ways the most lik­able char­ac­ters, but they do feel real. Khan’s real tri­umph in this story, though, is the set­ting: a near-fu­ture Earth that’s been dev­as­tated by war. As the details un­fold about the gov­ern­men­tal sys­tem in place, which en­cour­ages cit­i­zens to re­frain from close re­la­tion­ships un­til later in life, read­ers will be fas­ci­nated by the story the au­thor has con­structed. It’s in­ter­est­ing enough that I’d love to see a com­pan­ion novel set within this same fic­tional world.

Shat­tered Minds Laura Lam Tor, $25.99

Ca­rina is a bro­ken woman, spend­ing her days in a vir­tual world where she acts out her most vi­o­lent fan­tasies. Once she was a promis­ing bio­hacker work­ing for a mega-cor­po­ra­tion, Su­dice; now she’s a drug ad­dict who’s wast­ing away. All of that changes, though, when one of Ca­rina’s for­mer co­work­ers con­tacts her with a secret that can bring down Su­dice. In a stand­alone thriller set in the same world as 2016’s “False Hearts,” Laura Lam tells the story of a woman who has sunk to her low­est — and be­yond — in grip­ping prose. Ca­rina is in a painful place when the novel be­gins; I re­coiled from her as much as I sym­pa­thized with her. As she be­gins her jour­ney to re­cov­ery, a dif­fer­ent Ca­rina emerges. It’s a near-fu­ture story of a bru­tal cor­po­ra­tion, yes, but more than that it’s Ca­rina’s evo­lu­tion. There’s a lot go­ing on in this novel — a hid­den past, a per­sonal vendetta — and it should be too much, but Lam never lets her nar­ra­tive get away from her.

The Wan­der­ers Meg Howrey G.P. Put­nam’s Sons, $27

“The Wan­der­ers” feels so fa­mil­iar, you’ll for­get that you’re read­ing a story that hasn’t hap­pened. In just a few years’ time, a pri­vate com­pany called Prime Space (think SpaceX) will put the first hu­mans on Mars. But first they want to sim­u­late the mis­sion (as the Mars So­ci­ety re­cently did in Utah). If all goes well, the test crew will be the ones to ac­tu­ally set foot on the Red Planet. Howrey takes three very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters, He­len, Yoshi and Sergei, and places them all within the con­fines of a space­craft, with the knowl­edge they are si­mul­ta­ne­ously forg­ing a new path ahead while stand­ing com­pletely still. As fas­ci­nat­ing as the crew is — and they are — Howrey also ex­am­ines the im­pact on those left be­hind. A three-year sim­u­lated mis­sion to Mars, fol­lowed by three more years of the ac­tual thing — it’s a long time for these as­tro­nauts to be away from their fam­i­lies. What does it take to make that choice? And what hap­pens when you can no longer tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween real and sim­u­lated? It’s a mas­ter­ful psy­cho­log­i­cal novel, full of rich char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and a sur­pris­ingly grip­ping nar­ra­tive.

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