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All Science Fiction Coverage

What is it with the devil and violinists? Seems like his thirst for their souls is never slaked. In the 1700s, he made a deal with Paganini; in the 1970s, he went down to Georgia; and now the unlikely California city of El Monte offers up the latest additions to his infernal collection.

In Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, violin teacher Shizuka Satomi finds herself on the horns of a dilemma: As the clock ticks down, she needs to deliver one more soul to the Bad Guy Down Below or else prepare to take the hot seat for all eternity. She’s already turned over six violin students, each of whom traded their immortal essence for earthly success beyond their wildest ambitions. 

Number seven, though, is a problem. Katrina Nguyen, a transgender teen runaway with a broken instrument and a broken psyche, isn’t motivated by the typical incentives (recording contract, concert tour, international renown) that made Shizuka’s previous students such easy marks.

Katrina isn’t the only refugee with a troubled past on Shizuka’s date card. Local donut shop owner—and starship captain—Lan Tran is on the intergalactic lam from a civilization-destroying phenomenon known as Endplague. After a meet cute, Shizuka and Lan embark on a friendship in which confidences are shared and mutual assistance is provided.

In a sense, virtually all of the book’s protagonists are literary examples of the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which damaged pottery is repaired with gold, becoming stronger because of its imperfections. In addition to the novel’s all-the-feels poignancy, Light From Uncommon Stars is also very, very funny. When Lan’s son is harassed by a hot-rodding local, the interstellar traveler derides the Earthling as “another primitive . . . who thought going 0 to 0.00000089469 times the speed of light in 6.6 seconds was something to brag about.” In another scene, when Lan marvels at a seemingly unending parade of breadsticks at an Olive Garden, Shizuka rejoins, somewhat incredulously, “But you traveled across the galaxy. The galaxy.”

Without straining the metaphor too much, Aoki gets every element of mise-en-scène note-perfect, and her prose is as exacting and precise as the techniques Shizuka is trying to impart to her young charge. Readers can feel the steam emanating from the kitchens of Aoki’s San Gabriel Valley noodle joints, hear the scrape of a freshly rosined bow across recalcitrant strings and experience the acute anguish of having one foot anchored in one world while the other is desperately trying to move forward. 

It almost makes you wonder if Aoki made a deal with—naaaah. She knows better.

In addition to the novel’s all-the-feels poignancy, Light From Uncommon Stars is also very, very funny.

Robert Repino’s War With No Name science fiction series began with an immediately compelling premise: What if animals gained sentience and rose up against humans? But the heart of the series lies in an interspecies friendship between Mort(e), a former housecat, and Sheba, the dog who was his best friend before the world changed forever.

With the release of Malefactor, the final novel, Repino looks back on the surprising, heartwarming origins of the War With No Name series.

In the fall of 2009, I awoke from a strange dream and immediately began scribbling everything I could recall in my notebook. Groggy and working by the light of a Manhattan streetlight, I remembered an image of my old neighborhood in the Philadelphia suburb of Drexel Hill. An enormous spaceship hovered directly above my parents’ backyard, with a metal gangplank extending from the hull to the grass. A strange energy pulsed from inside the ship. And all the pets and stray animals in the neighborhood suddenly, as if on cue, rose onto their hind legs in a comical but hideous impersonation of humans. At that moment, all hell broke loose. The animals attacked, dragging the humans from their homes, cornering them against cyclone fences and manicured shrubs. It was grotesque and liberating at the same time because, in my mind, I was among the animals, yearning for some kind of revenge, unable to ignore my instincts to kill and to protect my territory. By the time I was done, I asked myself what an uplifted animal would choose as a name. And without thinking, I wrote what felt like a nonsense word: Mort(e). I fell back asleep.

The dream could not have come at a better time. I was between my second and third failed novels. Book number three—a somewhat autobiographical work set in the Caribbean—was about to go out to agents, a miserable process that had already left me in despair the previous two times I tried it. I had come from the MFA world and had produced mainly literary work up until then, with a few short stories published here and there. And now, with this dream still rattling in my head, I had to ask: Could I change course and write a completely bonkers novel about a war between humans and sentient animals?

All my sad little eggs were in one basket with this goofy mess of a science fiction novel, part epic, part Saturday morning cartoon.

So, while novel number three began its journey through the meat grinder, novel number four—Mort(e)—came to life a few months later. By then, I had replaced the aliens with a hyperintelligent ant colony. Insects that are treated like pests would have a more coherent motivation to wage war with humanity, and would hark back to some of the weird B-movie entertainment that helped to raise me like Them! and Phase IV. That first draft opened with the aftermath of my dream, with the humans tied up and carted away by their new animal overlords. And from there, I let it rip, creating a war story with characters who find themselves permanently damaged by their pyrrhic victory over their sworn enemy.

But believe it or not, all of this was meant to be a love story. When I asked myself who the protagonists would be, the answer was simple. Before I was born, my parents adopted an orange and white cat named Sebastian when they moved into their first apartment. In the unit below lived another married couple, who owned a big dog named Sheba. My parents became such good friends with the couple below that they named them as my godparents when I came along a few years later. Sebastian and Sheba, meanwhile, had an adorable friendship, often falling asleep together on the landing of the steps that connected the two apartments. That experience may have convinced Sebastian that he was a dog. There is a scene in the novel in which the cat protagonist fiercely “protects” the house from a babysitter, which is word-for-word reenactment of an incident from my youth. My mom still loves to tell that story. And so, Sebastian and Sheba were the perfect couple to place at the center of the chaos of war.

While Mort(e) continued to grow, my previous novel crashed and burned. Though I found someone to represent it, the book languished for over a year on submission. Eventually, I had no choice but to part ways with the agent I had spent nearly a decade trying to find. Over five years had passed since completing my MFA, and everything felt like it was going backward. By then, all my sad little eggs were in one basket with this goofy mess of a science fiction novel, part epic, part Saturday morning cartoon.

As I tried to focus on the positive, I found the book changing as well. In later drafts, I deemphasized the spectacle of the premise in favor of the simple, platonic, interspecies love story. That’s been the backbone of the entire series, which I think made it attractive to a new agent and, eventually, to a publisher. The series now includes three novels and a spinoff novella. Somehow, as I moved on from a demoralizing period in my career, I was able to conclude the War With No Name on a relatively positive note with Malefactor, focusing more on redemption rather than revenge, and forgiveness rather than judgment. Frustration and despair may have given birth to the project, and even sustained it for a while, but what’s the use in that if it doesn’t lead to something better?


Author photo by Nicholas Repino

Robert Repino looks back on the surprising, heartwarming origins of his War with No Name series, which follows an interspecies war between animals and humans.

Short, sweet and chock-full of both existential joy and dread, Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell’s novella Light Chaser is a hard science thriller set in a utopian future.

A lonely quasi-immortal, Amahle is a light chaser, a spaceship captain who travels the stars and takes advantage of enhanced genetics and lightspeed time-dilation to cross through millenia. Her mission is the dispersion and eventual retrieval of memory collars, fancy futuristic necklaces that record the memories of entire lifetimes: Imagine the 94-part Instagram stories of your most social media addicted-friends, but stretching across a century with fewer grainy, impossible-to-hear concerts. Between planets, Amahle uses these memory collars to experience the lives of those she met on her visits, with only the ship’s AI as her companion. That is, until she realizes that someone is trying to reach out to her through the memory collars, someone capable of communicating across centuries and galaxies.

Despite its short length, Light Chaser plunges into both soul-bound, possibly fated love and universe-spanning conspiracies. Readers who love unique science fiction settings will enjoy how Hamilton and Powell reveal new worlds with each new chapter. Both world building and suspense increase in tandem, complexity and depth building throughout the story while each new reveal amps up the tension.

An ideal read for a flight or a cozy afternoon at home, Light Chaser will make an afternoon seem like minutes.

Short, sweet and chock-full of both existential joy and dread, Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell’s novella Light Chaser is a hard science thriller set in a utopian future.

So you’ve successfully saved a fleet of soldiers from an intergalactic peril while simultaneously becoming the reluctant commander of a budding resistance movement. Now what? That's the dilemma facing Adequin Rake, captain of the spacecraft Argus. Unluckily for her—but luckily for readers—the excitement doesn’t ebb for even a moment in The Exiled Fleet.

As J.S. Dewe’s rousing follow-up to The Last Watch opens, Rake and her patchwork crew have survived the expanding calamity known as the Divide only to enter a new predicament. Without a warp core to travel to a safe part of the solar system, they’re dead in the water, and food and patience among the corps is growing scarce. Rake must rely on her team of trusted crewmembers to figure out how to retrofit the Argus and jump to safety. Along the way, they’ll encounter ancient civilizations, criminal enterprises and more than a few mechanical difficulties, all while trying to evade the evil Mercer Empire. Strap in—it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

But the bumpy ride is why we’re all here, right? One of the best parts about The Last Watch was how a cobbled-together, rag-tag assemblage of characters and technology still eked out a victory. I’m happy to report that the same white-knuckle, skin-of-their-teeth excitement is here from the very first page. So, too, are many of the characters that made the first installment great, as well as some welcome new arrivals.

Since The Exiled Fleet wastes very little time getting back into the action, it’s definitely recommended that readers tackle the first book before turning to this one. It’ll be completely worth it, because Fleet does a superlative job of expanding on everything that was interesting in Dewes’ debut—and this book is even more engaging and often, more personal. As Rake and her crew search for solutions, Dewes explores more of her complex universe and reveals more about the characters’ pasts. One character in particular has to come face-to-face with some ugly truths about his own family in a tense, painful, scary and oh-so-satisfying scene. Dewes has an aptitude both for excellent naval-inspired action sequences as well as for quieter interludes between characters. The amount of time she gives her characters to simply speak to one another makes the bonds they forge that much more believable.

In my review of The Last Watch, I mentioned that everyone should get ready to go back to the Divide in the next installment. But in The Exiled Fleet, Dewes goes far beyond the Divide to points of space as of yet unseen. Here’s hoping the next book in this excellent series keeps propelling us even further into the stars.

So you’ve successfully saved a fleet of soldiers from an intergalactic peril while simultaneously becoming the reluctant commander of a budding resistance movement. Now what?

Dex is a monk of Allalae, the god of small comforts, living in the only city on the planet of Panga. Their city and its satellite villages are the only parts of their world where humans have lived since the Factory Age, which ended when human-built robots suddenly achieved consciousness and asked to be given the freedom to choose their own path through existence. The robots vanished into the wilderness, and the humans have lived in their cities alone ever since.

After Sibling Dex begins ruminating on a recording of evening crickets—a sound that they have never heard in reality, as generations ago, crickets were rendered extinct in areas inhabited by humans—they start to see all the other ways they feel unfulfilled. They decide to become a tea monk, a vocation devoted to helping people in the satellite villages through a combination of good listening and good tea. But after years tending to the villages, Dex’s cricketsong wanderlust remains unfulfilled, and they leave the trails between human habitations behind, striking off into the foreign forests.

Typically, we assume that stories require conflict, and this is particularly true in genre fiction, in which there are worlds to be saved, aliens and elves to be romanced and new technologies and ancient incantations to be discovered. So it is striking that Becky Chambers’ novella A Psalm for the Wild-Built is narratively compelling without anything approximating a typical science fiction conflict. Rather, it is a story of discovery, fueled by the tension of exploring a small slice of an unknown world, like a more tightly constructed Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

In keeping with the rest of Chambers’ work, Psalm is a remarkably personal story set within a much larger saga; in this instance, she sets Sibling Dex’s journey across Panga against a canvas of rapid, large-scale sociocultural evolution. And although Psalm is separate from Chambers’ Wayfarers series, it follows many of the same themes: the strength of platonic bonds, thoughtful engagement with one’s environment and personal growth. It also retains the fundamental hopefulness and aspirational nature of her longer works.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is the perfect length. If it were shorter, it would be unsatisfying. But if it were longer, its meditative tenor might have become unsustainable, even with Chambers’ sense of whimsy shining through as frequently and naturally as it does. Introspection and humor are perfectly balanced, to the point that these two tones literally bracket the novella: The first line is a shot of humor that admirably sets the mood and grabs the reader’s attention, while the last line is a draught of peaceful gratification reminiscent of one of Dex’s prized brews. This duality is characteristic of Chambers’ work, and A Psalm for the Wild-Built admirably demonstrates how it can translate beautifully into shorter formats.

Psalm also highlights Chambers’ talent for world-building without excessive description. The ubiquity of ox-bikes, which are bicycles aided by electric motors to handle towing loads and climbing hills, speaks more clearly to Panga’s wholesale commitment to sustainable technology than pages of exposition. Similarly, the nature of this world’s six gods—including their separation into Parent Gods representing natural forces (Bosh, the god of the life cycle; Grylom, the god of the inanimate; and Trikilli of the framework of natural laws) and Child Gods representing human creation or action (Allalae of small comforts; Chal, the god of constructs; and Samafar, the god of mysteries)—paints a remarkably detailed picture of the cultural ethos of Panga society. And the tea monks, journeying through satellite villages, providing solace with a kind ear and a warm mug of tea, highlight this culture’s deeply collectivist bent.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a worthy addition to Becky Chambers’ already burgeoning oeuvre. It distills her established interest in moving the grand conflicts of genre fiction to the background, in favor of more inspiring personal stories infused with beauty and optimism.

Dex is a monk of Allalae, the god of small comforts, who abruptly decides to leave the familiarity of the only city on the planet of Panga to become a tea monk.

Looking for a quick bit of adrenaline, a spot of intrigue and the drama of an international sports event? Look no further than the second entry in K.B. Wagers’ NeoG series, Hold Fast Through the Fire.

This second book in the author’s military science fiction series picks up roughly a year after the events of A Pale Light in the Black. The crew of Zuma’s Ghost have achieved a repeat victory at the intermilitary Boarding Games, which was quite an achievement given that the Near-Earth Orbital Guard (NeoG) are looked down upon by other branches of the armed forces. Zuma’s Ghost is facing a change of staff, and everyone is uneasy about what that means for the future of the ship. The prelims for the next year’s Games are fast approaching, and the Ghost has been put on a new task force to investigate potential smuggling issues from off-world settlements.

Nika, still off balance from the loss of his hand, is apprehensive about his new command on Zuma’s Ghost, despite the fact that it was the ship where he cut his teeth as a budding lieutenant. His budding romance with Maxine Carmichael is on the rocks, and to make things worse, he has accepted a secret assignment that will put both Max’s and the crew’s trust to the test. Chae, Zuma’s Ghost’s new pilot, has issues of their own. Forced into the NeoG as part of a plea bargain, they are torn between their growing loyalty to their new crew and the need to keep their fathers safe from intergalactic intrigue. Meanwhile, Max is certain something is desperately wrong with Nika, Chae and their new assignment, but no one will back her up. With Nika effectively gaslighting her to throw her off the scent of his new top-secret mission, Max will have to hew closely to her own instincts if she is going to get the team through the prelims in one piece—let alone their official assignment.

Unlike A Pale Light in the Black, Hold Fast Through the Fire’s central mystery begins unrolling nearly at page one, giving the book a more sinister feel than its predecessor and pulling readers into a labyrinthine plot that surprises and delights. This does take away slightly from the Games aspect of the series, but readers who enjoyed A Pale Light in the Black’s focus on the competition won’t be disappointed. When training for the Games does make its appearance, it still packs the same adrenaline-filled punch of A Pale Light in the Black. Despite the increase in intrigue, Wagers devotes ample attention to the relationships among the crew of Zuma’s Ghost. From the exploration of Jenks’ and Max’s close friendship to Chae’s struggles to fit in with the group to Nika’s battle to accept himself after his accident, Hold Fast Through the Fire is as much about found family and interpersonal relationships as it is about mysteries or the Boarding Games.

This brilliant and entertaining installment in the NeoG universe is a great choice for readers looking for military drama, evocative writing and espionage.

Looking for a quick bit of adrenaline, a spot of intrigue and the drama of an international sports event? Look no further than the latest entry in K.B. Wagers’ NeoG series, Hold Fast Through the Fire.

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