Books Book Reviews

3 intriguing new science fiction titles

Three strong new sci fi releases get 2018 off to an excellent start.

Semiosis By Sue Burke Tom Doherty Associates 336 pp.
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  • Steve Donoghue

A new year brings new voices in all the genres. But in science fiction and fantasy, much of the writing is not only new but also exploratory, pushing the boundaries set by earlier writers, breaking new imaginative ground. 

And since this is science fiction, the new imaginative ground is usually alien ground. This is the case in Semiosis, the immensely satisfying debut novel from Sue Burke. The book revolves around one of the oldest scenarios of the genre: first contact with an alien species. A small group of colonists from Earth have traveled to the planet they've dubbed Pax in order to start a new society, and they do indeed encounter aliens on that world – a unfathomably strange network of sentient plants that at first doesn't seem at all friendly toward these bipedal invaders. 

Burke tells her story through the viewpoints of generations of human settlers, and this plays to one of her obvious strengths as a writer: the sharp, evocative delineation of believable characters. "Semiosis" unfolds the old science fiction idea of first contact in ways that are both traditional and subversive; we watch not just the initial bewildering encounters but the slow, gradual entwining of two worlds. The book is tremendously enjoyable – and also the announcement of an impressive new talent. 

Another new and equally impressive voice this season is Anjali Sachdeva, whose debut story collection All the Names They Used for God  sprawls all over the usual territories of the genre, from the heartbreaking contemporary urgency of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram (the title story and in many ways the most wrenching piece in the collection) to the comparative rarity of historical science fiction: an entire and enticingly alien world underneath prairie of the American Old West, a tale revolving around John Milton in the writing of "Paradise Lost," and, in the book's most winning story, a transformation-tale of a worker in one of Andrew Carnegie's steel mills who is himself smelted and refined into something less than human – and ultimately much more. 

Sachdeva's stories almost seem to revel in their diversity; the book has surprises on virtually every page and touches on a host of philosophical and technological questions that feature both in the treatises Milton read (and wrote) and today's headlines. Science fiction has always been at its strongest when working exactly this kind of combination, and Sachdeva's first attempts at it are remarkable.

Of course, newcomers to any genre in any season will always been working alongside seasoned pros and older voices! And when it comes to older voices, February presents readers with an absolute treat: Bloomsbury Publishing is coming out with a gorgeous reprint of Brian Carter's A Black Fox Running from 1981, complete with the author's own illustrations. 

In lyrical, self-consciously stagey prose, the book tells the story of a Dartmoor fox named Wulfgar – his life, his love for his mate Teg, and his ongoing battle with a ruthless and somewhat demented trapper and First World War veteran named Scoble and – somewhat more directly – with Scoble's equally-demented dog Jacko, whose thoughts read like short telegrams from a half-witted homicidal (or, in this case, vulpicidal) maniac. Carter's book is unapologetically brutal; creatures both vile and virtuous are always vulnerable to deaths that are described in vivid detail, and the cruel English winters of the late 1940s are equally violent. But underneath the vying savagery and sentimentality, Carter tells a lovely tale fit to stand alongside animal-world classics such as "Watership Down" and "The Wind in the Willows."

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