I’m not a big science-fiction reader, at least not by any self-proclaimed sci-fi fan’s standards. Sure, I grew up on Ursula Le Guin; became somewhat obsessed with Neuromancer; am totally obsessed with Dune; and yes, Stranger in a Strange Land was my favorite book for my first three years as a teenager (I recommend anyone just hitting puberty to read it). But do I keep up with authors outside the canon, dabble in online forums, or even pretend to know Philip K. Dick beyond his influence on the big screen? Nope. I’m not that nerd.
But this summer, I found three new books that had me lost again in the imaginations of authors looking at how the world could relatively easily go off the deep-end, given some tinkering with science. These books provide the escape we all need. What better way to criticize humanity after all — at a time when we sure as hell could use a critic — than to imagine how bad it could really become?
The first book, The Doomed City, is actually already a classic — for Russian speakers. Finished in 1972, authors Boris and Arkady Strugatsky kept this book secret for 16 years because they considered it — rightfully so — too politically risky to release in Soviet Russia. After reissuing Roadside Picnic and Hard to Be a God (which coincide with the release of Aleksei German’s film, hands-down the most disturbingly beautiful sci-fi film you will ever see), the Chicago Press has now translated the authors’ last, and best, novel into English for the first time. Their works are brilliant — if you’re into that deep, dark Russian philosophy that could only come out of reflection on Soviet repression. The short of it: The world is a sociological experiment run by elusive “mentors” who oversee a city filled with washed-up members of society, plucked from various times out of the 20th century. They are forced into all kinds of work, deal with bizarre attacks, nightmarish illusions, and try to carry on with life while avoiding the fact that their life is simply part of an experiment, the designs of which are revealed to none. The communist parallels are never obvious. The historical references are nuanced and poignant. And the conclusions, disturbing and beautiful in equal parts. It’s the kind of book that will shake you to your core.
Another excellent new novel is Chuck Wendig’s Invasive. This book follows the path set forth by Michael Crichton (a la Congo or Jurassic Park) in which Wendig’s exhaustive research brings a convincing story of humanity tinkering with nature — only to have it backfire. The plot: An Elon Musk–like CEO trying to save the world empowers evil scientists who unleash a swarm of genetically engineered killer ants. Ok, the book is not exactly surprising — greed is the prime driver of all evils; friendship and camaraderie, the forces that fight it — but it is compelling, well-written, and the science (mostly about the curious habits of ants) is wholly plausible, even for folks who follow the works of E.O. Wilson. If you don’t have time to read it, expect to see it on the big screen — although reading about creepy-crawly killer ants is probably easier than watching them swarm.
To reiterate, I’m not huge on science fiction, so you won’t find me delving into self-published sci-fi books, well, ever. But when Simon and Schuster published Nicholas Sansbury Smith’s bestselling trilogy (Orbs I, II, and III), as a paperback, I gave it a go.
For the most part, the going was tough. The premise — aliens live on Mars, come to America to suck up all of our water, including that in our bodies — is so wildly unscientific as to make me physically wince. But it’s the prose that can actually cause pain:
“Sophie tilted her head back, a smile playing on her lips. She hadn’t expected to hear him use the word us ever again.
“I won’t,” she said, relaxing into his arms. A sense of relief washed over her body. It wasn’t just a feeling of temporary safety, though. It was something deeper—something more intense.
It was love.”
Then again, I finished this book in three days. That’s not because I’m a speed reader but because, I can now admit, it’s great pulp. The aliens are enjoyably ridiculous (glowing blue cyclops lizard people; giant spiders with forcefields), the characters comfortable cliches (the marine, the paranoid nerd, the fearless female leader who then falls in love with a fellow scientist), and the plot out-there enough for you to turn the page to find out just where the author is going with all this. The effect is something akin to watching movies like Independence Day and They Live. In other words, it’s bound to be a cult classic.