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.
Earlier this year, Between the Covers blogger Jeanne told our readers about Archetype, a debut novel by Maryland author M.D. Waters. In that novel, Emma wakes with no memory of her past. She begins to have flashes of memory and soon realizes that neither her doctor nor her loving husband Declan are exactly who they seem to be. She fights to learn the truth, and what she finds is truly shocking.
Prototype is the exciting conclusion to Emma’s story. The novel picks up one year after the end of Archetype. Emma now knows what happened to her, and she finds herself on the run from Declan. If she wants to survive, she must trust Noah, the man who she used to believe was the love of her life, and members of a resistance group that she used to help lead. The action ramps up in Prototype as Emma claims her true identity. This book is a genre-bending hybrid of science fiction, romance, action and psychological suspense.
Waters recently answered some questions for Between the Covers readers. Learn more about this talented writer, what she’s working on now and the music that influenced Emma’s story.
Between the Covers: What inspired you to write Emma’s story?
M.D. Waters: Growing up, my dad was a huge influence on me when it came to what the future could hold. I always had these things in the back of my mind: a planet-wide overpopulation, technology to control what type of child you bring into the world and that Mother Nature will always make it right. So when Emma woke me in the middle of the night, telling me she lived in a world where women were a rare commodity… Well, I immediately thought of all these things my dad believed possible.
BTC: Equality and legal rights, which differ wildly between men and women as well as clones and humans, are an important issue in both books. Have you had much feedback from readers about those issues?
MW: I have, yes, and everyone takes away very different things. Lots of positive thought provoking, but also some negatives, which surprises me. Lots of assumptions on my “plan,” which doesn’t exist. I see those issues as very normal and very possible, and didn’t even think about the actual rights issues it addressed when I wrote the books. We already live in a world where equality is a matter of perspective, and many of us are blind to the truth. Will it always be that way? I don’t know. I’d love to think we’re progressing to complete equality, but we’re human and subject to nature and/or nurture.
BTC: You share a lot of music on your blog. If Emma had a theme song, what would it be?
MW: “Lost in Paradise” by Evanescence. I swear there was a point when I listened to it on repeat for days. But I’d also choose “Tear the World Down” by We Are the Fallen. I felt a lot of Emma’s strength in Prototype in that one.
BTC: The books are a great blend of action, science fiction, romance and suspense. Let’s pretend that you just got the call that Archetype and Prototype are being made into a movie, and you have free rein with the casting. Tell us about your dream cast.
MW: Jennifer Lawrence, Stephen Amell (Declan) and Charlie Hunnam (Noah). (Triple crosses fingers!)
BTC: Will you tell us a little bit about your writing process? Where do you write? Do you write every day? Who is your first reader?
MW: My process is crazy. I go in these really long spurts of sleeplessness and coffee hazes. Then I binge watch television for days after because I broke my brain. I have a “library” in my house with my books and desktop, but I move around to different areas with my laptop too. Change of scenery always helps. My first readers? Charissa Weaks and Jodi Henry. I have a handful of people who read for me, but these two are always there to read short paragraphs to entire chapters on a whim. I couldn’t do this without them.
BTC: What can readers expect from you next?
MW: More of the same. I’m working on a spinoff of Archetype and Prototype, but also a Young Adult sci-fi [novel] that’s set in a world with its own set of issues.
BTC: As a reader, what book are you most excited to get your hands on right now?
MW: How much time do we have? Currently, I’m ready to get my hands on The Infinite Sea by Rick Yancey. His writing really shook loose the voice in the Young Adult [novel] I’m working on, plus The 5th Wave was seriously kick-ass. So, um, gimme.
The science fiction genre has been on the decline for quite some time, but with the rise of innovative, mind-bending authors like Ann Leckie that might be about to change. Leckie has set imaginations afire, garnered a constellation of outstanding reviews and received a recent nomination for a 2013 Nebula Award for her debut novel, Ancillary Justice.
Ancillary Justice is set in a far future in an interplanetary empire known as the Radch. The Radchii utilize humans, massive ships and space stations connected by a vast network of artificial intelligence and the Ancillaries. Ancillaries are formerly living humans that have been transformed into part of the collective mind of their ships or stations. No longer human but also not fully machine, they are the Borg with more humanity and better fashion sense. Breq, the book’s protagonist, used to be an Ancillary of the starship Justice of Toren. Something happened to the ship, and she is the last surviving piece with all of the ship’s memories and no individual identity of her own. Breq is on a quest for vengeance for the death of her favorite human officer. The story is told in both Breq’s present and flashbacks that tell of the events leading up to the loss of the Justice of Toren. These flashbacks allow the brilliance of the work to shine through.
With a narrator that is a ship consisting of hundreds of parts, you often seem to get point of views from dozens of perspectives, but they are all from the same character. It is no accident that the Radchii have no sense of gender. Throughout the book, Breq refers to everyone as "she," and it is only through the conversations of others that we get any sense of gender identity. As Breq’s story unfolds and you see a multifaceted Artificial Intelligence developing a split personality and hiding secrets from itself, you develop a true appreciation for what Leckie has accomplished.
A world on the verge of unimagined changes in identity, technology and biological change, Ancillary Justice delivers a window into our future and how the definition of being human might be more malleable than we think.