With the release of its third volume, the conclusion of the series’ first major story arc, now is the perfect time to catch up on Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera’s pulp sci-fi romp Black Science. Grant McKay and the Anarchist League of Scientists seek the infinite possibilities of the multiverse using the taboo science of interdimensional travel, but things go astray when they discover that “the Pillar,” the device they’ve designed to navigate them through other dimensions, has been tampered with, and is now juggling them between seemingly random alternate realities and parallel dimensions.
The inks and colors by Matteo Scalera and Dean White, respectively, are vibrant and full of energy. This spectacular art team transports the reader to fantastical locations: a swampy landscape ravaged by a war between humanoid fish and frogs, a parallel North America where Native Americans have advanced technologically far beyond the rest of the world and a planet inhabited by flying spider-hippos and millipede-like religious fanatics are just a few examples. (It’s exactly as much fun as it sounds.)
As action-packed and outlandish as Black Science is, Rick Remender’s strong sense of pacing keeps the drama focused on the characters. In addition to the threats that the group encounters as it tears through the walls of reality, the members also struggle with more personal troubles like handling the responsibilities of parenthood and dealing with the aftermath of infidelity.
Those who enjoy Black Science may also want to try Rick Remender and John Romita Jr.’s take on Captain America, which is infused with a similar sci-fi flair.
The central conceit of Jim C. Hines' Magic ex Libris series is that practitioners of magic can pull tools out of books, creating arsenals of the wildest ideas that authors have ever come up with. Consider the benefit of Lucy's magic cordial from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a potion that can heal all wounds and sickness with just a drop, or the devastating power of Robert Jordan's balefire, a fire so strong that it doesn't just destroy its target, but erases it and all its works from existence. For years, Isaac Vainio was a Porter, a magical librarian tasked with keeping the public from knowing that magic even exists. In Unbound, book three in the Magic ex Libris series, the lid gets blown off so far that there's no chance magic will ever be secret again.
The value of the secret of magic is small compared to the incoming threat. An ancient queen has re-awoken, possessed the body of the only libriomancer who has so far figured out how to tap into e-books and started a rampage that should eventually result in a collapse of mortality and a whole lot of destruction. In her path: a former mage, the most kick-butt dryad to ever grace the pages of literature, a cranky psychiatrist not sure any of her extended family has any business in the field and the rapidly collapsing network of the Porters.
The greatest brilliance of Unbound may take place between the chapters, in one or two page stories that perfectly capture the fear and excitement of a world waking up to magic in its midst. As YouTubers fight over the special effects used in videos, wizards sneak into cancer wards and family members berate people for not doing enough when they had the power. It's exhilarating, heart-breaking and hopefully a promise of a fourth book set in the completely shattered status quo.
The United States of Europe needs oil, so it’s off to the New World for Eddie Cantrell, his wife Anne Catherine, a company of Irish mercenaries and the local Dutch fleet. Welcome to the Ring of Fire Universe, where a small West Virginian town was dropped into the middle of the Germanies in the Thirty Years’ War, founding the United States over a hundred years early. It is a massive shared universe in 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies by Eric Flint and Chuck Gannon.
When Eric Flint wrote 1632, it was a simple lark — throwing modern machinery and freedom of religion in Europe, hitting blend and seeing what amusing anachronisms popped out. The universe runs off of three main rules. First, modern technology runs into Arthur C. Clarke’s Superiority paradox. It may be superior, but if it can’t be repaired or replaced easily, it’s no good in the long term. Second, history books have given all the major players an idea of who’s going to matter over the next few decades, and they can alter their plans accordingly. Third, small people can change the course of empires too, especially as Europe struggles with the ideas of democracy and freedom of religion. To add the kind of depth this premise is capable of, Flint threw open the doors, allowing other authors to first write short stories and collaborative novels. The universe got even bigger, and now there are over 20 novels focused on a wide variety of plot threads, and anthologies of meticulously researched fan stories. Quite a few authors got their starts writing for the Ring of Fire universe. It is living history.
1636 takes place around the Tar Lake of Trinidad, one of the more easily accessible oil fields of the world. Real politik leads the Wild Geese of Ireland, late of Spain, to found a new Irish Kingdom. Expect lengthy explanations of technology and politics, often more than plot or forward momentum. But that’s a big part of the reason the universe exists: to watch things being built in different directions.
Since the Clone Wars, Emperor Palpatine’s reach spans as far as Star Destroyer warp drives can extend. For some, the tumultuous peace is just another inevitable hardship of border planet living, but other galactic citizens aren’t as keen to bend to the Emperor’s will. In Star Wars: A New Dawn, longtime comic and Lucas Books writer John Jackson Miller introduces two new characters who are poised to become lingering thorns in Palpatine’s side as they rally their own rebellion, one refugee at a time.
Planet Gorse is only inhabited by holdout colonists clinging to a declining mining trade. They spend their days harvesting thorilide, a commodity for droid and weapons manufacturing, and their nights drinking away their hard-earned credits at Okadiah’s planetside cantina. Working to impress the Emperor, ruthless and cunning business mogul Count Vidian arrives on Gorse to survey the thorilide supply and optimize what little industry remains. His investigation leads him to Cynda, Gorse’s moon, which is also laden with thorilide. The trick is that extracting thorilide from beneath the moon’s surface is time-consuming, and both Vidian and the Emperor are unwilling to wait for the materials to trickle in from border space.
Kanan Jarrus is a Cyndan miner seemingly like all the other holdouts, but he is able to draw exceptional strength and willpower from the pain of loss he has been harboring since childhood. Jarrus notices the out-of-place Vidian marching around with his clone soldier escorts and takes it upon himself to keep the other miners safe by any means. He runs into Hera Syndulla, a Twi’lek spy who has been trailing Vidian across the galaxy, and the two ally to combat the encroaching Empire. Can they stop Vidian from hatching a nefarious plan to harvest Cynda’s resources in a highly unethical and ultimately lethal manner?
Kanan and Hera continue their adventures in the animated series Star Wars Rebels which has spawned numerous Star Wars books for children. Adult and teen readers who enjoy A New Dawn should round up their children, brothers and sisters for a Star Wars party!
Puff the Magic Dragon conjures up a saccharine image, kind of like a winged Barney. A dragon named Melted Face with hide like Kevlar is more a feature of nightmares. Unfortunately for herpetologist CJ Cameron, Melted Face and his cronies have her in their sights in the rip-roaring action thriller The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly.
CJ is flying to China. The Chinese government is sparing no expense to bring her, along with influential politicians and reporters, to premiere their nation’s newest attraction: a phenomenal zoo designed to make the Disney’s amusement empire look rinky-dink. As they arrive at the park, located in a remote no-fly zone, CJ is stunned to see Greyhound bus-sized mythical creatures soaring through the sky. The official announcement? “Welcome to Great Dragon Zoo of China.”
Like a surreal Sea World, the visit starts with the equivalent of a dolphin show. A cute handler prompts dragons through tricks, explains they were were hatched from ancient eggs buried miles beneath the earth’s crust and ends by saddling up a sweet yellow dragon and flying into the clouds. CJ, however, sees both grim intelligence and simmering resentment in the lizards’ eyes, and this public relations visit quickly turns into a blood-soaked battle for survival as hordes of angry dragons turn their captors into prey. Furiously paced and laced with reptilian scientific factoids, The Great Zoo of China is an adrenaline-charged adventure of a tale.
Imagine that right this second you could be anywhere else in the world: Where would you go? What would you do? Who would you seek out? Where would your dreams take you?
Cent dreams of space. She can jump anywhere in the world. Space is a whole other set of challenges.
The ticking heart of a Steven Gould book is the hard science underlying a fantastic premise. Yes, Cent and her parents can jump anywhere in the world, but it's underpinned by physics. Playing around with the implications of instantaneous travel is only part of the package. Much of the rest of it comes from examinations of present day and near future space travel. The third pillar of a Steven Gould story is relatively normal characters living through the fantasy.
Exo is the fourth book in Gould's Jumper series, which climbed all the way to the box office in an almost completely unrelated movie. Every single book has looked at the implications of instant travel, and every book has shown new revelations. This is the first to take the concept into space and ponder questions with serious real world implications. We're unlikely to ever have the ability to teleport freely, but any method that could allow for cheap or free launches could change the course of human history in large and small ways. A long, positive look is taken at the idea of letting senior citizens spend time in the comfort of zero gravity, for instance.
It's not all science. There are broken hearts, patchy relationships, awkward family bonding and an organization of spies lurking in the background. But Exo is a fun, fast romp that plays with some big ideas.
Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, is a book with a mission, the public face of a project determined to get humanity moving back in the right direction. What direction is that? The direction is big dreams backed by science, a drive unseen since the furious push of the space race. Hieroglyph is built on the idea that scientists and engineers need science fiction writers to dream big dreams for them to chase after. To that end, Arizona State University started the Hieroglyph project to get everyone talking with each other. These debates are open to the public. This book is an anthology of short stories. After every story, URLs are provided to discussions with the hope that the readers read further, and maybe even take up the torch themselves.
The stories run a range. Most aren't concerned with space travel, keeping the science closer to home, and more likely to be reached within our lifetimes. The first story is about the massive architectural shifts that could come from building a tower 20 miles high. Other stories create greener cities, or more peaceful conflict resolution through social media and advanced common literacy. This is an optimistic book, sometimes utopian in its outlook, but often not. There's a lot of pragmatic futurism here, including massive acknowledged debts to Robert Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon, which was far less about space travel than it was about the business deals necessary to make space travel possible.
As literature, the stories vary in quality from crisp prose by Cory Doctorow to long descriptions about future cities that aren't really stories. It pitches big ideas and strange ideas, through narrative and experiments. Considering all of the technology we use every day, from medical technology, smartphones and touch screens that came out of Star Trek, sending science after science fiction makes sense. If Hieroglyph gets traction, expect sequels with more dreams.
When it comes to comic books and graphic novels, Jeff Lemire is a 21st century Renaissance man. Hailing from Canada, he has been recognized numerous times for his prowess in both storytelling and artistry. Lemire has written and drawn most of his works completely on his own, but he also fares incredibly well when teaming up with other writers and inkers at DC Comics.
Lemire’s sci-fi brain bender Trillium is an eight-issue comic series published over the span of August 2013 to April 2014. In Trillium, adventurers Nika and William are torn from their worlds by occult magic and thrust together in an alien jungle on a foreign planet. Through this supernatural machination, the couple becomes intertwined, although they don’t realize it at first since they’re unable to communicate due to language disparities. Nika and William fight to understand each other while combing the flora and fauna in search of the rare trillium flower, which is thought to be the only possible cure to a sentient, space-travelling supervirus that has decimated humanity.
Trillium is confounding and strangely beautiful. Navigating dimensions with William and Nika is a thrilling experience with a rewarding narrative that endears readers to persevere. Throughout the series, Lemire toys with conventional comic layout standards and actually has readers flipping the book upside down and reading from back to front, conveying the disorientation the characters are feeling. Lemire’s signature mixed medium art style leaves each page messy and scrawled, evoking hysteria and tension. His ability to convey emotions through his characters’ faces is incredible; oftentimes it isn’t what’s said, but what’s left unsaid that resonates in Lemire’s works. The same is true of his 2008-2009 Essex County Trilogy, which has been praised as one of the best Canadian graphic novels of its decade.
The aftermath of an energy crisis is explored in Edan Lepucki’s new novel California. Frida and Cal are on their own, living in a shack and facing the uncertain future that may include the birth of a baby. Frida knows she may need help with the birth, and the couple discover that there is a community of people nearby, surrounded by a foreboding fortress made of tall spikes and broken glass. But is the fortress meant to keep strangers and roving bands of pirates out, or keep the insular residents in? Desperate to find acceptance, Frida and Cal decide to play by the rules. But a charismatic leader emerges with an agenda of his own, and both Frida and Cal begin to wonder if this is the paradise for which they had hoped.
A remarkable work of dystopian literature, California stays fresh with interesting characters and a suspenseful storyline. Frida and Cal are sympathetic protagonists, and Lepucki examines elements of their past life and slowly reveals how the world before has led to a dramatic and difficult present.
Although set in the future, the novel stays grounded in reality and will appeal to readers who enjoy strong characters facing hard choices in a realistic way. This debut novel for Edan Lepucki proves her to be a writer to watch. The audiobook is narrated by Emma Galvin, who brings life to the text for an enjoyable listening experience. Readers who enjoy this novel may want to also read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel or The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber.
Thirty years ago, mankind gained access to virtually unlimited space. By means of a small box containing a potato, people could step "West" or "East" into an unknown number of alternate Earths where humankind had never evolved. Given open spaces, mankind did what mankind has always done, and colonized millions of other worlds. They weren't nearly enough.
Willis Linsay disappeared 30 years ago after releasing humanity into the Long Earth. No one knows where he's been, or what he's been looking for all that time, but now he's back and dragging his daughter along to Mars. For Mars, it turns out, also has an infinite number of alternate worlds, and one of them might just hold a whole new gateway to the universe. Back on the Long Earth, Captain Maggie Kauffman has been sent on an entirely new exploration, all the way out to Earth 200 million. Joshua Valiente, the Long Earth's oldest explorer, has set out to find a new kind of people who may be humanity's future.
The third book in the Terry Pratchett Long Earth series, The Long Mars' weakness is its plot, which feels like the set up for a bigger story. While there may be a functional double climax, most of the story is exploratory ramble, but that exploratory ramble remains absolutely stunning. Every world in the Long Earth and a few in the Long Mars developed in radically different ways. The alternate world premise may be fantasy, but every world of the Long Earth has real science behind it. Here, an entirely different evolutionary pathway, there a different sociological slant on civilization. It's possible to learn more about climate science in in a single passage of The Long Mars than an entire high school science course, and be entertained besides by Terry Pratchett's arch commentary.