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All Science Fiction Coverage

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Maya Hoshimoto swears that her time as a thief is behind her. She used to travel across the galaxy returning stolen artifacts to nonhuman civilizations, until a job gone wrong nearly cost both her life and the life of her best friend, the Frenro alien Auncle. Studying anthropological archives as a graduate student is much safer, but Maya is plagued with visions of a future only she can prevent, one seemingly connected to the doomed expedition of a long-dead space archaeologist who stole a Frenro artifact. 

With government officials breathing down their necks, Maya and Auncle tear off into deep space with the help of a new motley crew to find the so-called stardust grail first. If they can decipher the clues and figure out the hidden location of the relic, it could help save Auncle’s civilization and keep the interstellar gates around Earth open. But it isn’t long before Maya discovers how many people are keeping secrets and how close to war the universe is—and it may be up to her to decide who gets saved. 

Star Trek meets Indiana Jones in this anti-colonial space heist from The Deep Sky author Yume Kitasei. The Stardust Grail blends horror, adventure and fantastical whimsy into an expeditious adventure. Kitasei’s explorations of various nonhuman civilizations will fascinate, and her alien characters are so endearing. Auncle’s whimsical optimism—and love of hats—makes for an especially standout character. 

There are no easy answers to the moral and political quandaries presented in The Stardust Grail. Ultimately, it’s Maya’s hope she’s doing the right thing and belief in her friends that guide her through the story’s breakneck, if occasionally muddled, finale. Fans of Ryka Aoki, Ann Leckie and Becky Chambers will find much to love in this fast-paced, expansive adventure.

Star Trek meets Indiana Jones in Yume Kitasei’s anti-colonial space heist, The Stardust Grail.
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Bounty hunter Cynbelline “Cyn” Khaw is best known for ruthlessly killing a ship full of slavers. But before that, she was Bella, a disgraced constable on a backwater planet whose cousin was kidnapped by the infamous Abyssal Abductor and dropped into an oceanic trench when their family couldn’t pay the ransom. So when a scion of one of the galaxy’s most powerful families recruits Cyn to rescue her daughter from the same kidnapper, there’s no way Cyn can refuse. Even if the job means going home to a family that’s clueless about her career. Or if it means joining up with the crew of the Calamity, whose hospitality she infringed upon during a previous mission and whose well-muscled and entirely too perceptive medic she can’t get out of her head. As she chases down the shadows of her own past, Cyn must learn how—and whom—to trust if she is to capture the Abyssal Abductor and gain justice for her family.

Fiasco is a delightful mix of space noir and romance, combining an adrenaline-fueled tale of justice and the search for closure with a compelling love story. Some of the tropes within Constance Fay’s second novel may feel familiar to those who love the genre (a ragtag crew, a well-worn spaceship, a ruthless bounty hunter), but Fay refuses to color inside the lines. While the novel’s action and high-impact chase scenes are brilliantly wrought, so too is Cyn’s inner life. Far from being a stock character, she springs from the page with her struggle to trust others and Fay’s visceral depictions of her traumatic past. Cyn is a woman obsessed with doing the right thing who will go above and beyond for those she loves. But Fay doesn’t make her heroine a superhero: Rather, Cyn’s shortcomings (and there are many, from her squeamishness around combat to her flighty nature) make her all the more compelling. A perfect mix of kinetic action, romance and mystery, Fiasco is heady, anxiety-inducing and—above all else—endlessly entertaining.

A perfect mix of kinetic action, romance and mystery, Constance Fay’s sci-fi romance Fiasco is endlessly entertaining.
Interview by

In The Ministry of Time, an unnamed narrator serves as “bridge” (read: guide and guardian) to Victorian polar explorer Graham Gore, who’s been transported from his doomed mission to present-day London. From there, what at first seems to be a fish-out-of-water comedy unfolds into a meditation on the lure of bureaucracy, an exploration of both the liberation and trauma of Graham and his fellow “expats,” and an unexpected love story between Graham and the bridge.

If you were a bridge, what type of person would you want your charge to be?
Someone like Arthur Reginald-Smyth, the expat from the First World War—quiet, kind, sincerely interested in the world around him. The alternative would be to commit myself to the stress and anxiety of a really difficult, badly adjusted expat for the humor. Oh, you’re trying to kill the television because you think it’s full of demons? OK then. Make sure you put the ax back when you’re done.

Why did you choose for your main character, the bridge, to remain nameless?
There’s a hierarchy of names in the book. The bridge never names herself to herself, because she is herself, and doesn’t need to: She sees herself as the still, universal point of the turning narrative. The expats, whom she monitors, studies and obsesses over, she names in full: Graham Gore, Margaret Kemble, Arthur Reginald-Smyth, etc. People like Simellia, Adela and Quentin are major enough “characters” in her narrative for her to name, but she doesn’t name them “in full” as she does the expats, because she doesn’t imagine them in the same level of detail (which—no spoilers—is a major mistake on her part). Then there are people referred to by their jobs, like the Secretary and the Brigadier, who are not even people to her, but functions of institutions—another telling example of how she views the world and authority.

Early on, the bridge thinks about paperwork and the safety it provides, whether that’s for an immigrant or just for someone with a great deal of social anxiety. Do you see a connection between this sentiment and the way the bridge connects with the Ministry and bureaucracy?
Definitely. The bridge is fixated on the idea of control, and excessive documentation, choosing and fixing a narrative, is one way she maintains this. Though she would never admit this—would probably consider it a sign of character weakness—she has had to deal with the inherited trauma of a profound and terrifying lack of control, and it has made her obsessive about always having control, stability, protection. The specific way she has channelled this is into a fondness for bureaucracy, and a certain moral blind spot about the methods one might use to maintain control over a situation or a person.

“Time travel, in this world, isn’t a matter of cutting a door in space-time and stepping into another era; there are grisly consequences.”

Of all of the members of the Erebus and the Terror, why did you choose Graham Gore?
Our eyes met across a crowded Wikipedia page . . . I was watching “The Terror,” a 2018 show about the Franklin expedition, and I was trying to keep track of who was who in each episode by checking the fan wiki. Graham Gore appears in the first two episodes and I was intrigued by his name, so I looked him up. That was really all it took. I loved the pen portrait drawn by his commander, James Fitzjames: “a man of great stability of character, a very good officer, and the sweetest of tempers.” Who could resist?!

Book jacket image for The Ministry of Time by Kaliane Bradley

Every polar exploration aficionado has their favorites. Other than your charming re-creation of Graham Gore, who are yours?
My other polar exploration favorite is a wretched man named Robert McClure, who was eventually knighted and became a vice admiral. He is briefly mentioned in my book by Graham, who (historically) knew him and sailed with him. I couldn’t have made McClure a romantic lead. He was a severe, bullying officer who once gave his cook 48 lashes for swearing. But I find him fascinating, because his private letters and expedition diaries also reveal him to be a lonely, yearning, rather funny man who was fond of animals and suffered terrible stomachaches. I could write a whole novel about him, though the tone would be very different.

The other expats, especially Maggie and Arthur, absolutely stole my heart. Were these characters based on real figures as well, or more general research about their time periods?
The other expats are all entirely fictional! For Maggie and Arthur, I chose the Great Plague of London and the First World War because these events occupy such a major place in the British collective imagination. Given that one of the things I was keen to explore in the book is the way that history, as a narrative construct, informs national and personal identity, I wanted to offer them as representatives from British history who in fact completely break from stereotype and expectation.

Any scene involving Maggie took the longest to write because I wanted to get her language right. I’m particularly proud of “pizzle-headed doorknob.”

What is your favorite piece of research that did (or didn’t) make it into the book?
I extrapolated a lot about Graham’s personality from Robert McClure’s 1836–7 diary. They sailed together as part of an earlier Arctic expedition (which was successful, in that it came back with most of its crew alive). One of my favorite discoveries was that Graham—then 26—kept himself occupied by growing peas in coal dust. When they were harvested, he gave them to a sailor who was dying of scurvy in a sick bay. According to McClure, the poor fellow enjoyed them very much. There’s also the story of Graham cross-dressing . . . but I’ll save that for another time.

How did you decide on the way that time travel works within your world? When did the image of a door between times come to you?
For me, the core part of the time-door is not the doorframe, which is just a receptacle, but the actual machine that catches and funnels time. Though it isn’t seen until very late in the book, the reader knows by that time that it has been repeatedly mistaken for a weapon—and indeed, every time it’s turned on, something awful happens to someone. Time travel, in this world, isn’t a matter of cutting a door in space-time and stepping into another era; there are grisly consequences for using it. The machine is a technology, a tool, that can be violently exploited, like gunpowder or the split atom.

“If you want to be a good immigrant—whether from another country or another era—to what extent should you allow yourself to be exploited by your host state?”

I was so taken with the concepts of “hereness” and “thereness” with the expats, and the implication that surveillance systems could only pick them up depending on how moored they were within their new time period. Can you talk about where this idea came from?
Thank you! I was inspired by a beautiful and important book, Time Lived, Without Its Flow by Denise Riley, which was written in the aftermath of the death of Riley’s son. It is an extended meditation on the ways that grief can take you out of the normative flow of time, so you exist in a different, frozen version of time to the people around you—there, not here. I was also thinking about the idea of a lost home that exists only in memory or stories, like Victorian Britain or pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Even when those places are no longer “here,” they are always just “there,” in retelling, just out of reach.

As with the time-door, the physiological consequences of time travel, of choosing to be “here” or “there” and so visible or invisible to modern surveillance technology, can also be exploited. Imagine a spy who can be invisible on CCTV! If you want to be a good immigrant—whether from another country or another era—to what extent should you allow yourself to be exploited by your host state? As Y-Dang Troeung says in her memoir, Landbridge, the question asked of refugees is never “Are you grateful?” but “How grateful are you?”

Food is such a vital part of how Gore attempts to relate to his bridge. What drew you to food (and cigarettes) as a way to build the connection between them?
Almost every meal cooked by Graham in the book is one that my fiancé has cooked for me or that I’ve cooked for him. (I also stole some of my fiancé’s jokes for Graham, such as calling electric scooters “a coward’s vehicle.”) They are meals that remind me of what it feels like to be in love. Rather less romantically, The Ministry of Time started as a silly piece of wish fulfillment, to bring my favorite polar explorer into the present day, and among other wishes I would like to fulfill, I would really really really really really really REALLY like to have a cigarette. Imagine being a Victorian and getting to chain-smoke all day without knowing about the consequences. Dreamy.

Read our starred review of ‘The Ministry of Time’ by Kaliane Bradley.

Photo of Kaliane Bradley © Robin-Christian.

In the debut author’s dazzling The Ministry of Time, Victorian explorer Graham Gore is transported to modern-day London.

A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters by Cheena Marie Lo

If you were pressed to categorize a book of poetry on your bookshelf as fiction or nonfiction, would you choose fiction? Most people probably would. Poetry has a reputation for being airy and fantastical, for dwelling in the realm of emotions and dreams, not in the “real world.” Yet there is a strain of poetry that is explicitly concerned with informing readers about real events: documentary poetry. Cheena Marie Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters (Commune Editions, $16, 9781934639191) is an excellent contemporary example, using statistics and phrases pulled from the news to trace human responsibility for the outcomes of devastating “natural” events like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. Lo compares ecological processes like seasonal migration with the movement of evacuees in response both to the destruction caused by a storm and the failure of systems expected to provide help. At the same time, Lo points to the recovery of nature as a model for community recuperation through mutual aid. This is a great collection to read alongside Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler—another powerful documentary book of poems that chronicles state failure and human resilience during and after Katrina.

—Phoebe, Associate Editor

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

I was introduced to The Best We Could Do (Abrams ComicArts, $19.99, 9781419718786) in a college English class, which admittedly isn’t the most exciting way to find a book. But as a 20-something with lots of emotions about parenting and intergenerational trauma, I found author-illustrator Thi Bui’s story at exactly the right time. This graphic memoir flows between present and past. In the frame story, Bui is anxious that her flawed relationships with her parents will define how she interacts with her newborn son. In an effort to alleviate her anxiety, she sits down with her parents and attempts to figure out how they became who they are, journeying with them through their childhoods in war-torn Vietnam, their harrowing migration as refugees and their imperfect restart in America. Told through beautiful watercolor illustrations and sparse, emotionally-wrought text, Bui’s memoir does not offer easy answers to questions about trauma, immigration and family. However, The Best We Could Do is a tremendous lesson in empathy and a testament to healing through human connection.

—Jessica Peng, Editorial Intern

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

Casey McQuiston’s sophomore novel, One Last Stop (Griffin, $16.99, 9781250244499), is a clever, emotionally resonant take on a timeslip romance with an utterly dreamy love interest: 1970s punk feminist Jane Su, who is mysteriously trapped outside of time on the New York City subway. As they proved in their already-iconic 2019 debut, Red, White & Royal Blue, McQuiston understands that in order for readers to wholeheartedly invest in a heightened scenario, it helps to have characters who are going through things that are eminently relatable. And so, recent New Orleans transplant August Landry’s quest to rescue Jane is balanced by the travails and triumphs of her job at Pancake Billy’s House of Pancakes (one of the best fictional diners ever?) and the slow blossoming of her relationships with her roommates into something like family. It’s an achingly sweet portrait of a closed-off loner finding community for the very first time, and an ode to being young, broke and happy in NYC. It all culminates in a perfect finale, where August must draw on her new connections to pull Jane free and secure their happily ever after.

—Savanna, Managing Editor

The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu

Our whole planet is migrating in the title story of The Wandering Earth (Tor, $19.99, 9781250796844) a collection by Cixin Liu, renowned author of The Three-Body Problem. Faced with proof of the sun’s imminent death, humanity collectively seeks to escape obliteration by installing giant plasma jets to propel the Earth toward a new solar system. As mankind’s home is transformed into one massive spaceship, an unnamed protagonist watches decades of his life pass, narrating with straightforward melancholy as he witnesses tragedy and chaos. As changes to Earth’s orbit cause boiling rain to fall and oceans to freeze, the cataclysmic, sublime journey of “The Wandering Earth” will batter you with alternating waves of immense beauty and terror. And don’t expect a chance to surface for air after finishing this first story: The next nine continue to pummel the reader with Liu’s staggering imagination and rare talent for combining grandiose backdrops with personal stories suffused with aching emotion, such as that of a man climbing a mountain made of water, or a peasant boy growing up to become a space explorer. Liu’s eye for detail and mind for the poetic add a profundity to The Wandering Earth, elevating it to stand among the best science fiction.

—Yi Jiang, Associate Editor

Does warmer weather and the approach of summer have you feeling restless? Pick up one of these stories featuring journeys great and small.
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The Ministry of Time tells the story of a British agency with a singular mission: to determine whether time travel is safe, feasible and practical. Using civil servants known as “bridges” as expert live-in companions and aids for individuals forcibly relocated through time (called “expats”), the ministry seeks to study not just the effects of time travel, but whether these time refugees can integrate into modern British life.

One bridge, a nameless former translator, is paired with Graham Gore, a British officer and explorer from a doomed 1845 mission to the Arctic. Gore is the embodiment of the 19th century: proper, reserved and dedicated to the British Empire. His bridge, meanwhile, is the biracial daughter of a British man and a Cambodian refugee, and sometimes struggles with the relationship between her identity and her position. As they navigate Gore’s integration into the 21st century together, cautious regard turns into something more precious. But a shadowy conspiracy within the ministry itself is threatening Gore’s life as well as the lives of all the expats whom the bridge has come to care for.

Kaliane Bradley is about to turn us all into Arctic explorer fangirls: Read our Q&A.

A fantastical combination of time-travel novel, spy thriller and slow-burn romance, The Ministry of Time uses its fish-out-of-water story to explore cultural identity and the legacy of British imperialism. Thoughtful and deliberately paced, Kaliane Bradley’s debut novel mainly focuses on the relationship between the nameless bridge and her charge, from the explanation of the last 170 years of history to the evolution of feminism, relationships and racism. These careful, often gentle moments between bridge and expat are complicated by their respective backgrounds: One is the product of an imperial world, the other of a post-colonial one. Even as they fall in love, they find no easy answers as to how to navigate a century and a half of history or their cultural divide. Instead, The Ministry of Time shows people who are doing their best, even as the world around them is changing, knowing there is honor in the struggle itself.

A fantastical combination of time-travel novel, spy thriller and slow-burn romance, The Ministry of Time uses its fish-out-of-water story to explore cultural identity and the legacy of British imperialism.
Review by

In S.A. Barnes’ slow-simmering creepfest Ghost Station, the stress of deep space travel can do things to a person. If longtime spacers develop the condition called ERS, they’ll start to see things that aren’t there, hear voices that no one else hears. They sometimes turn irritable, even violent. 

The story begins with Dr. Ophelia Bray, who is very out of her element. A psychologist by trade, she’s been assigned to a small exploration team investigating an ancient, lifeless planet. The crew is mourning the death of a teammate, and none of the surviving members have any interest in Ophelia’s therapy sessions or letting their guard down. They also don’t seem to care if their work increases their chances of ERS. But as the explorers investigate the planet, stranger and stranger things begin to happen. It seems they aren’t alone on this world after all. Ophelia and the crew are going to have to trust one another to figure out what’s happening to them if they hope to escape alive. 

Barnes is no stranger to sci-fi horror; her excellent Dead Silence stood out for its atmosphere and sheer scariness, and fans of that novel will be more than happy with this follow-up. Like any great horror story, Ghost Station takes its time, but is sure to ensnare anyone craving intergalactic horror. Barnes patiently increases the sense of unease, building suspense with small moments that are odd on their own and increasingly strange taken together: an empty spacesuit in an abandoned station, a shape running through a snowstorm seen through a window, a rash on the skin. Things pick up steam in the later acts, especially after a couple of shocking moments right after the halfway mark.

In this golden era of sci-fi horror, Barnes leads the charge with her thoughtfully crafted characters, top-notch pacing and an ever-present sense of dread.

With its thoughtfully crafted characters, top-notch pacing and ever-present sense of dread, Ghost Station is another sci-fi horror hit from S.A. Barnes.
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Found family is a special weakness of mine: From Lord of the Rings to “Stargate SG-1,” I often find myself tearing up as brothers- and sisters-in-arms share their lives and hurts with one another. Cascade Failure by L.M. Sagas and Floating Hotel by Grace Curtis are both about struggling, scrappy people making their way through a sci-fi world—and both have enough emotional heft to move even less susceptible readers. Cascade Failure makes a deep, rich investment in five characters and their adventure to save the galaxy. Floating Hotel, on the other hand, drifts from one perspective to another, almost never repeating the same viewpoint, to paint a beautiful portrait of a community.

In Cascade Failure, debut author Sagas kicks off a new sci-fi series with aplomb. A disgraced himbo of a soldier named Jal finds himself captured by the crew of the Ambit, which consists of his old lieutenant, an AI ship captain and a foulmouthed engineer. They try to take Jal in to be court-martialed, but are distracted by a distress signal that leads to a chattery, terrified programmer and a conspiracy that threatens millions across the galaxy. From there, the crew of the Ambit go on a rollicking journey, but the real draw is how the relationships between the characters unfold. Each person has a long history rife with post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse and abandonment. Sagas avoids making the party’s communication difficulties frustrating for the reader, using their inner monologues to illustrate the complicated emotions and memories that stand in the way of healing. At first, the five people aboard the Ambit are tense and uncomfortable around one another. By the end, they are inseparable.

A beautiful luxury ship that travels the galaxy, the Grand Abeona Hotel is slowly falling into disrepair. Its manager, Carl, has a penchant for taking in strays and finding them jobs. The staff is thus a group of people who happened upon one another, rather than actively chose one another. As a result, their familial relationships encompass both long-suffering irritations and radical, immediate support when needed. More than anything else, they each have a special affection for the Grand Abeona Hotel and the safety, unity and new start it provided each of them. A political mystery provides a spine of sorts—a rebellious writer has been criticizing the emperor, and various figures are hunting for the satirist—but Curtis focuses on small redemptions and triumphs. The musician finds her song, the stuttering aide finds her confidence and the bonds between a group of broken people shift from necessary tolerance into something like love (which should be familiar to anyone who has worked in the service industry for any amount of time). Melancholic and nostalgic, Floating Hotel is an ode to circumstantial companions that left this reviewer pondering old friends who now live miles away, off in their own stories.

The crews of a galactic hotel and a shambly spaceship bond in spite of themselves in these emotional sci-fi novels.
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Anna Sinjari is a Kurdish woman dealing with both office drone existential dread and the lingering trauma of the violence she escaped when she immigrated to America. Ssrin is an alien on the run, who immediately bonds with Anna when they encounter each other in Central Park. As a cosmic crisis looms, the pair’s uncanny connection could be what saves Earth from destruction—or dooms it. 

When you were first forming the ideas that became Exordia, what concept crystallized first?
I was in study hall in high school in 2002 or 2003, and because it was 2002 or 2003 and I was about 14 years old, of course I was thinking about Lego Bionicle: an action figure line with a weirdly compelling (and somewhat uncomfortably appropriative) world based on Maori and Polynesian myth. And I was also thinking about space. And when you put those two together, you might think to yourself, what if Lego Bionicle was invaded by space aliens? So I wrote a story about that.

And it turned out in the course of this story—inspired by Garth Nix’s Sabriel—that, like many fantasy villains, the invading aliens were evil. Not just destructive, or behaviorally incompatible, or obeying an alien set of beliefs or incentives or values, but actually, in a real physical way, inhabited by capital-e Evil. After many years I got to thinking, huh, what would that mean for a galaxy of inhabited life?

You can’t do this story with human beings. I think the idea of a human culture that is intrinsically evil is itself unhuman, it’s an evil thought experiment. It’s too close to so many lies that have been used to justify suffering and genocide. And one of the duties, maybe the only duty of a writer, is “You will not spread lies.” But it is nonetheless an idea humans entertain anyway: What if my moral enemies were not just wrong, but actually, ontologically evil? I think that when we get into disagreements or fights or actual life-or-death conflicts with other humans, there is still a part of us which craves that certainty.

“What if, along the way, we had to work with people we’ve treated quite badly?”

Do you think Exordia depicts how Earth would respond to an alien invasion in real life?
To this specific subtype of alien invasion, where the aliens are hostile, where they are advanced but still roughly constrained by the need for a ship and a physical presence and so forth, where they need something from the planet and can’t just kill us all with impunity from on high?

Sure. I’ll say yes! Just cause I’m really interested to see what email I get as a result. Yes, it’s an accurate depiction of how we’d react to that scenario.

We have one advantage in this book that we probably wouldn’t get in real life, which is that the aliens need something specific from our planet, and we have a chance to get to it first. I suspect that if you narrowed this question to “Does this book accurately depict how Earth would respond to a bizarre radio signal from the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan?” then my answer is “Yes, to the best of my ability, with a few concessions for dramatic effect.” But I also bet that if you got the national security advisor or the Joint Chiefs of Staff or their counterparts from Iran or China or Russia or Turkey or Pakistan, etc. etc., to do an interview with me, they could give me some pointers on what I got wrong.

Book jacket image for Exordia by Seth Dickinson

I loved the choice to make Anna Kurdish. What drew you to the Kurds when building her character?
In 2019, a guy named Jon Schwarz wrote something which seems pretty correct: “Nothing in the world is certain except death, taxes, and America betraying the Kurds.”

What’s really striking about the Kurds to an American is that they are a huge challenge to American exceptionalism. We see ourselves as the birthplace of modern democracy. We like to believe that we bring democracy to places we invade. But of course we fuck it up constantly, we create this hideous cauldrons that spawn monsters. Yet the Kurds, living in exactly that kind of cauldron, have produced some social movements which are dramatically more egalitarian and democratic, in some respects, than anything you could campaign on in America. Try to get a law passed in the U.S. which says you must have as many women as men present at every level of government. Try to declare that women are the primary actors of history and that women’s liberation is the central task of human liberation. You’d never make it past the local selectboard. But not only have Kurds in places like Rojava made these declarations into central principles of their communities, they have done so in the kind of war-torn, chaotic environment that Americans, I think, implicitly believe can only spawn groups like ISIS.

I am not here to beatify the Kurds. Like any group of people they have evils and mistakes and dark history. It is always dangerous to just pick an ethnic or cultural group and treat them like your favorite Pokémon. But I am here to put the Kurds and their relationship with the United States at the center of a science fiction story. Very probably, even with the help of some Kurdish readers, I have fucked it up in some significant ways. But there are so many science fiction stories which treat America’s generous military and aerospace resources as a guarantee that we would be the protagonist of first contact. What if, along the way, we had to work with people we’ve treated quite badly? What if they had their own efforts at first contact, their own communication with the aliens, established before we even arrived?

What if, as has so often been the case, we ended up doing as much to harm as to help?

Exordia’s various female characters contemplate their place in the macho-man pressure cooker of the military. What choices do you have to make as a writer to examine such a topic while also letting the characters breathe and the story flow?
When it comes to the culture of the United States military in 2013, when Exordia is set, I’m pretty much just a reporter. It’s not hard to talk to vets or current service members on the internet and get their feedback. You never take it uncritically, but you can get a much stronger idea of how these characters would think and act than you would by just watching “Generation Kill” for the ninth time. And of course everyone has strong opinions about the place of women in the military. 

A big theme in talking to vets was the idea that in the military, a lot of people don’t really care who you are as long as you do your job and understand the culture—but you’ve got to withstand a degree of hazing and offensive irreverence to prove that you’re tough. Some women I spoke to took a lot of pride in giving as good as they got, in the idea that the military is an endless generator of both stupid bullshit and transgressive humor. Not every woman in the military has the same beliefs as me, an avowed feminist but definitely a civilian. I tried to respect that.

Ultimately, I just tried to give each character their own opinions and values. A joke one character would make offhand strikes another as grotesque and offensive. Black people in the military say things to each other that another Black character would never say in the Obama White House. There were some lines I didn’t want to cross, but other places where expert readers pushed me to just make the characters sound like real people they’d known (or been). My rule was that I wouldn’t write anything I wouldn’t be comfortable reading out loud to a good faith audience.

“If your characters care deeply about what’s happening, so will the readers.”

Daniel M. Lavery’s review of Exordia calls it “a comprehensive taxonomy of violence at every level.” Do you agree with him? Was that an intentional focus on your part?
Sure. I think the problem of violence is an intentional focus in all my work. There’s this override code for any disagreement in the universe, which is, you just go kill the other guy. You’re a little slimeball in the primordial ocean and you can’t get enough carbon? Well, you could evolve a novel strategy of carbon fixing, and chill out reproducing without hurting anybody else. Or you could just eat your neighbor and take its carbon. Which one’s more likely to evolve?

Everything in the universe faces this problem. They say never argue with an idiot, because they’ll drag you down to their level and beat you with experience. But how do you make anything good and durable in the universe when you’re constantly being dragged down to the level of “Do what we want or we’ll kill you,” or, alternately, “Nice industrialization, but you fucked up your environment and now you can’t get any calories lol.” The need to defend your own existence from violence, whether intentional or natural, is the idiot. And it keeps on dragging you down.

Exordia in particular is about what we do when violence is used to coerce us. If someone holds a gun to your head and says “Shoot one of your relatives, or we will shoot them all,” is it morally better to do what they’re forcing you to do, because you cannot be held responsible for someone else coercing you into evil—the evil is ultimately theirs? Or better to refuse, because you will not enable evil by complying with it? Or better to make a grab for the gun, because you’re so hopping mad you’d rather die fighting? Or better to never get into this situation in the first place, to treat your lack of answering violence as the real moral wrong? 

When you think back on writing Exordia, what sequence or moment was the most memorable to put down on paper?
The finale, no question. Just the whole last act. The bit where things move fast, you’ll know it when you read it.

When it came to the humorous bits of your novel, did those moments arise naturally or did you find yourself intentionally deploying it in certain parts?
I never once thought “I should go back and script doctor this to add some humor.” Sometimes the situation just lenses through the characters in such a way that the resulting ray of focus points to something funny. It’s absolute death to a story, in my opinion, when the characters get too arch and self-reflexive about it. “So THAT just happened” is the quip that gets bagged on the most, but the real problem, I think, is nonspecificity. Self-reflexive humor is humor about recognizing a trend across stories, and if you’re recognizing a trend across stories, maybe you should instead be making your story different! If there’s gonna be a funny bit, it should be a joke that’s specific to those characters in that situation. 

I am glad you thought there were funny bits, though. That’s a good sign.

Read our review of ‘Exordia’ by Seth Dickinson.

When writing, how did you know when a scene or idea was working? How did you know when something wasn’t working, either tonally or logically?
If something is just going on and on, building up complications—whether it’s dialogue or an explanation of some alien phenomenon—it needs to be tossed. Now you might say, “this whole book goes on and on, building complications!” That is true. To tell you the truth, in a few months I will work up the courage to reread this thing, and then I will have to decide if it’s worked or if I should’ve tried again.

The real trick with this is that if a scene is not working it may be because of a mistake you made 10,000 words earlier. You got to this scene but didn’t find the right ingredients waiting, because 10,000 words ago, you didn’t get those ingredients ready.

And the realest trick of all is just that you’ve got to constantly be finding more important reasons for your characters to care about what happens. People ultimately care about people. If your characters care deeply about what’s happening, so will the readers. If it’s all confusing and opaque and alienating to your characters, then odds are it will be to the reader too. Now you might say, “This whole book is about a confusing, opaque, alienating artifact!” Yes. But it is hopefully an artifact that heightens what the characters care about, rather than concealing it.

What other works inspired you the most when writing this book?
Startide Rising by David Brin, just for the giddy maximalism of its alien galaxy—I read it very young. The Andromeda Strain and (more importantly) Sphere by Michael Crichton, for their absolutely terrifying scenarios of alien contact. A whole bunch of technothrillers, particularly by David Mace, an obscure British writer I adore. Eon by the late Greg Bear, the tributes there are pretty obvious.

Diane Duane’s Young Wizard books were a huge influence in their willingness to reckon directly with death and evil on a cosmic scale. C.J. Cherryh is a touchstone whenever I try to write anything tense or military-adjacent; I do not think I have grasped much of her style but it’s an ongoing project. Vonda N. McIntyre’s brutally under-read Starfarers books have one of my favorite aliens ever, Nemo the squidmoth; her “Star Trek” novels were also a huge early influence on me (same for Margaret Wander Bonanno’s and for Diane Duane’s “Star Trek” books). Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest steered me into the multiple protagonist structure.

Do you think that serendure, the connection between two souls, is a real sensation?
No, I don’t. Not in the same way as compassion or camaraderie or love or hate. Those passions are the result of shared experiences with other people, and the attitudes that form in our minds. Even when we’re compatible with someone as a friend or a partner, we have to come to realize that inside ourselves. 

Serendure isn’t just “you really vibe with someone.” It’s “Like it or not, you are stuck to each other.” Stuck so hard that if a bullet comes at you, then serendure will make sure it kills both of you, or neither. That doesn’t exist in reality, unfortunately. I can’t love someone enough to protect them from bullets, or hate them enough to share wounds. But it’s a pretty common idea in storytelling, whether it’s soulmates in romance or vendetta in tragedy. So serendure is like the cosmic generalization of that human story, like realizing that the sun in the sky is the same as all the stars.

In his action-packed sci-fi debut, the author wades into the murky morality of evil, imperialism and violence.
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When you imagine humanity’s first contact with an alien, what do you picture? For me, it’s the optimism of classic sci-fi: ethereal beings slowly stretching out long-fingered hands from a glowing ship, a sign of peace and acceptance. Seth Dickinson doesn’t share my vision. In Exordia, his energetic, suspenseful melange of alien invasion and military action, Earth sits squarely in the middle of an intergalactic power struggle. If the aliens don’t get us, our own nuclear fallout might.

Anna Sinjari, a Kurd living in New York City, sees an alien in Central Park, basking on a rock in broad daylight. And Ssrin—the alien—needs her help, having been shot by another faction of beings. For some reason, Anna feels drawn to Ssrin, which is something the alien calls surendure: two souls existing as one. Anna begins to think of Ssrin as a friend, but their new partnership is barely formed when disaster strikes. Will Anna and Ssrin be able to fend off other alien agents and help save the world?

How Seth Dickinson wrote one of the wildest first-contact novels you’ll ever read.

Exordia’s first act is its most successful. Anna and Ssrin’s initial interactions are personal, hilarious and thought-provoking. Once the broader storyline kicks in, however, it can be a struggle to keep up, so impenetrable are some of Dickinson’s ideas. If you are someone who loves a monumental level of specificity when it comes to military command structures or the complex metaphysical value systems of aliens, this is the book for you. Dickinson’s obsession with detail greatly enriches the atmosphere of Exordia, which rockets across many points of view and locations as various team members look for clues to unravel the mystery. But at times, the numerous technical terms and jargon practically wash over the reader.

However, Dickinson has crafted a number of very human stories in a book ostensibly about aliens. Trauma, morality in the face of disaster, forgiveness, guilt, lost love and the bond between parents and children all find their way to the page. Yes, these people are witnessing and trying to survive the craziest moment in the history of Earth, but their connections to one another ring true.

While some may wish it spent as much time with its characters as it does exploring its many fascinating ideas, Exordia is undoubtedly impressive. But there’s no question that it will be many sci-fi fans’ favorite book of the year, especially those willing to surrender to it, and be consumed.

Seth Dickinson’s Exordia is an energetic, suspenseful melange of alien invasion and military action.
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The legacy of Sherlock Holmes is a wide one, spanning genres. The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles and The Tainted Cup give two vigorous nods to Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mysteries while embodying radically different tones: While the first is a cozy sci-fi whodunit with romance sprinkled in, the other combines the classic Holmesian ethos with the sort of existential threat epic fantasy can provide. Both novels, however, are tightly constructed celebrations of the mystery form.

The second in Malka Older’s Investigations of Mossa and Pleiti series, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles rejoins Investigator Mossa and her paramour, the botanist Pleiti, as they investigate a series of disappearances around Valdegeld, the university community on the rings of Jupiter in which Pleiti makes her home. As they search for 17 missing students, staff and faculty, Pleiti and Mossa travel from the habitable platforms that surround the planet to Mossa’s childhood home on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons. All the while, the specter of their last case looms large in Pleiti’s mind, the conclusion of which shook her faith in both the university and herself. The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles is a delightful cozy mystery: engaging, concise and as focused on its characters’ relationships as it is on the puzzle itself. If that wasn’t enough, Older delivers a world that is detailed enough to be believable but sidesteps away from distracting technical issues that could bog down the story. While lovers of hard sci-fi might feel frustrated by some of the implausibilities of Older’s depiction of life in Jupiter’s rings, the fantastical backdrop not only enables a clever mystery, but also serves as a subtle reminder of what might be in store for humanity if we can’t get our act together about climate change and income inequality.

Despite those faint warnings, The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles is ultimately a warm hug of a book. Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Tainted Cup, however, is a shot of distilled paranoia. The city of Daretana is under persistent threat of magical contamination and attack from the massive Leviathans that stalk the waters outside its sea walls. When an officer of the imperial engineering corps dies in a way that is both gruesome and horticulturally intriguing, famed investigator and notorious eccentric Ana Dolabra is pulled onto the case. Ever wary of engaging directly with the outside world, she sends her new assistant, the young Dinios Kol, in her stead. Magically engineered to remember everything he ever experiences, Din becomes Ana’s eyes and ears, and as they dig into the engineer’s death, they find a trail of intrigue that threatens the safety of the empire itself. The mystery within Bennett’s latest novel is slow and methodical, unspooling subtly throughout its 400-plus pages. True to the promise of its epic fantasy backdrop, the novel spins the consequences of the murder into something bigger than any could anticipate. Bennett expands the scope of this story in a way that feels both natural and occasionally surprising, dazzling readers with both his imaginative world building and perfect pacing.

As with many homages to Sherlock Holmes, both The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles and The Tainted Cup are told not from the perspective of their singular investigators, but from the perspective of their assistants. Just as with Conan Doyle’s John Watson, both assistants are in many ways far more three-dimensional than their partners. Older’s Pleiti spends as much time thinking about her research and her budding relationship with Mossa as she does on the case itself. And Bennett’s focus on Din and his occasional misgivings about Ana are often more compelling than any depiction of Ana’s antics.

But even as both novels focus on the everyman features of their investigative assistants, they also continue the tradition of the idiosyncratic, possibly neurodivergent, investigator. Both Ana and Mossa are singular entities, their intellects unmatched by their peers and just as quixotic as Sherlock Holmes himself. While neither wakes up the neighbors at all hours of the night playing the violin, each will worm their way into readers’ hearts in similarly unlikely ways, whether it’s Ana’s tendency to question visitors about the smell of their urine or Mossa’s encyclopedic knowledge of every food stall in the greater Jupiter area. Their lineage is clear, and their prowess is unquestionable.

The Great Detective’s heirs take to the stars and tangle with magical murders.
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Like Thunder, Nnedi Okorafor’s sequel to Shadow Speaker, returns to chaotic, post-apocalyptic West Africa and reunites readers with Dikéogu Obidimkpa, a mage currently leading a squad of special forces to liberate a camp of enslaved children producing chocolate.

To be more precise, it starts with Dikéogu introducing himself and the format of the book: transcriptions of voice recordings he made on a device called an e-legba. They vary in tone and precision, depending on Dikéogu’s state of mind when recording. It is a fascinating take on an epistolary novel, told by an often-unreliable narrator who frequently assumes that the reader knows more about past events than they actually do. He does explain where people like himself—called Changed Ones for their inhuman abilities, such as summoning thunderstorms, controlling the wind or reading people’s minds—come from and the prejudice they face. But the opening chapters focus on setting the tone for the rest of the story rather than exposition, trusting the reader to figure things out as they go.

A tale of mad mages and jealous lovers, of tyrants and demagogues, and of a catastrophe deferred, Like Thunder revolves around three people: Dikéogu, his old friend Ejii (protagonist of Shadow Speaker) and another Changed One named Arif. They are among the strongest Changed Ones, and reunite just as the peace treaty between Earth and its sister planet, Ginen—the peace treaty that saved both planets from destruction—is disintegrating. Dikéogu, Ejii and Arij are seeking a haven for Changed Ones, where they will be safe from the demonization of conservative internet pundits like Dikéogu’s own parents. And they are also caught up in a love triangle that may be crucial to saving the world.

Okorafor is an undeniable master of her craft, having won the Hugo and Nebula Best Novella awards for Binti and the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel with Who Fears Death, and Like Thunder is a well-written adventure story with surprising depths. Instead of drawing on the typical dystopian tropes, Okorafor relies on her signature blend of Africanfuturism (speculative fiction specifically about and written by people from Africa, as opposed to Afrofuturism, which focuses on African Americans), utilizing her familiarity with cultures from the Western Sahel to the Gulf of Guinea, and spiritual movements from the African diaspora such as Santeria. These rich mythological and historical influences add complexity to Okorafor’s work, but the relatively straightforward story in Like Thunder makes them easier to parse without prior knowledge. For anybody wanting an approachable—if not exactly gentle—introduction to one of today’s most thought-provoking science fiction writers, or anybody who just wants a good story told well, Like Thunder will more than satisfy.

A well-written sci-fi adventure story with surprising depths, Like Thunder will please longtime fans of Nnedi Okorafor and beguile newcomers.

Our top 10 books of November 2023

This month’s top titles include career-best works from Jesmyn Ward, Alexis Hall and Naomi Alderman.
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Book jacket image for Nowhere Special by Matt Wallace

Author Matt Wallace excels at depicting realistic family scenarios, complex moral dilemmas, and good-hearted, but flawed, adults.

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The Space Between Here & Now is an intriguing mix of fantasy and realism that lures readers in with the promise of magic and keeps

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Book jacket image for Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

We sometimes forget that the descent in Dante’s Divine Comedy is a journey toward God. Jesmyn Ward’s portrayal of slavery is the profound manifestation of

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Book jacket image for The Future by Naomi Alderman

The Future is a daring, sexy, thrilling novel that may be the most wryly funny book about the end of civilization you’ll ever read.

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Book jacket image for When I'm Dead by Hannah Morrissey

Hannah Morrissey’s small-town murder mystery When I’m Dead is nigh-on impossible to put down.

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Book jacket image for I Must Be Dreaming by Roz Chast

Longtime New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chaste’s I Must Be Dreaming is an uproarious, touching and zany ride.

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Book jacket image for The Dictionary People by Sarah Ogilvie

The Dictionary People—which chronicles the unsung heroes who contributed to the Oxford English Dictionary—is sheer delight.

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Book jacket image for Flight of the WASP by Michael Gross

Michael Gross’ delightful cultural history of WASPs illuminates the odd corners of the lives of our nation’s elite—and American history itself.

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Book jacket image for 10 Things That Never Happened by Alexis Hall

Alexis Hall’s new rom-com might have a zany setup—a guy fakes amnesia!—but its authentic emotion will win readers’ hearts.

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Book jacket image for The Reformatory by Tananarive Due

Beautiful and expertly executed, The Reformatory is a horror masterpiece that derives its power from both the magical and the mundane.

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This month’s top titles include career-best works from Jesmyn Ward, Alexis Hall and Naomi Alderman.
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In a distant star system known as the Kindom, a group of noble families rule with an unbreakable grip. But a single secret, in the right person’s hands, can change everything. A multilayered saga full of courtly intrigue and indelible characters, Bethany Jacobs’ These Burning Stars warps readers across the galaxy on a devilishly fun thrill ride.

Jun Ironway has just nabbed the biggest score of her thieving career: a data drive containing explosive evidence that one of the ruling families was involved in planetary genocide. It could bring in quite the payday. Or, it could get her killed. Hunting her are two of the Kindom’s finest clerics, members of a religious order that serve as law enforcement. Esek, heir to the Nightfoot family fortune, leads enigmatically and punishes ruthlessly while her counterpart, Chono, is impassive, devout and efficient. Haunting the steps of this trio’s deadly dance is a wanderer known only as Six, who seems to have a stake in the data drive as well. But who is Six and whose side are they on? And can Jun find a way to expose the truth before Esek and Chono catch her?

These Burning Stars is plotted like a chess match, confident and surprising as Jacobs moves each piece thoughtfully across her board. There’s a sense of delicate control as the pace and tension ebb and flow, and the characters approach and retreat from each other. Enriching flashbacks fill in relevant information, but only when the narrative calls for it. Jacobs has an applause-worthy restraint, holding her cards until they can be played for maximum effect.

All four main characters are extremely fun to follow, and this reviewer will be thinking about them long after filing this piece. Esek in particular stands out: a brilliant, haughty, rule-bending and gregarious sociopath who is as unpredictable as she is determined. Her scenes feel electric, like anything could happen, with Chono, her shadow and opposite, playing foil time and time again.

I’m happy to report that These Burning Stars opens a trilogy set in the Kindom. If Jacobs’ second entry is anything like the first, we’ll have so much more to discover across her universe in the years to come.

Bethany Jacobs’ These Burning Stars is a confident and surprising start to a sci-fi trilogy that boasts memorable characters and excellent plotting.

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