alternate history · review · science fiction

Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K Chess

The plight of a refugee is never easy. Uprooting oneself and family, fighting red tape and prejudice to find somewhere safe, homesickness. Even if there is no hope of returning, some refugees might be able to recreate a bit of home wherever they land. Not so for the refugees in K Chess’s Famous Men Who Never Lived. The refugees in this novel come from another universe, an alternate New York that was destroyed in a terrorist-created nuclear meltdown. This new New York and world are just similar, it seems, to remind them of how different the two realities are.

Hel and Vikram are two Universally Displaced Persons who, at first, seem to have found some kind of equilibrium with their new reality. Vikram works as a security guard at a storage facility. Hel hasn’t resumed her career as an otorhinolaryngologist, but she seems to be doing well enough. That is, until Hel gets the idea of trying to find the exact point where the two realities split. She does this by tracking down relics of a man who became a great science fiction writer in her reality, but who drowned at age 10 in ours. This quest quickly becomes another. Hel wants to use traces of the science fiction writer as the core of a museum for the Universally Displaced Persons’ lost reality.

Memory, as we learn in Famous Men Who Never Lived, can be both a comfort and a joy. For people like Hel, who lost a son when she won the lottery to travel to our New York, memory torments them. Everything reminds them of what they left behind and what’s different about their new reality. Everyone here, Hel feels, does things wrong. For Vikram and other UDPs, memories of their old life need to be balanced with their new reality. After all, they can’t go back; they can only move forward. And, lastly, for Hel and Vikram’s unknown antagonist, memories are to be destroyed as ruthlessly as the alien germ in the science fiction writer’s best known novel.

Famous Men Who Never Lived changed directions on me more than once. Characters won and lost my sympathy as I learned more about what was happening. This might sound like criticism, but it’s something I actually like. For me it’s a sign that characters are growing in a dynamic environment and, above all, I loathe static characters. I wish there had been a bit more detail about Hel and Vikram’s reality because I really like thinking about what might have happened if someone zigged instead of zagged and ended up changing history. Still, even without a lot of detail, I ended up very much enjoying this original, thoughtful novel.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

review · science fiction

The Psychology of Time Travel, by Kate Mascarenhas

Is it ironic that the creators of time travel never seem to know what will come of their discovery? Could the four women who create time travel in England in the 1960s have known that their invention would lead to a byzantine, temporally tangled, terrifyingly shadowy bureaucracy? They definitely couldn’t have predicted what time travel itself could do the psyches of people who undertake it. In Kate Mascarenhas’ fascinating novel, The Psychology of Time Travel, we dive deeply into these questions, especially that last one.

Barbara was one of the original four women who created time travel but, after an incident captured live by the BBC, she was pushed out of the quartet and forever banned from even working for the Conclave. Decades later, when another time travel starts to send warnings? hints? to Barbara’s granddaughter, Ruby, a spectacularly complex plot kicks off that will take the rest of the book, several investigators, and a lot of head-scratching to figure out. I loved every page of it.

The title of the book–and many events therein–force us to think about the consequences of skipping through time. A lot of the time travelers employed by the Conclave (including all of the original inventors except Barbara) “cheat” by looking ahead to see what happens to themselves. On the one hand, they are very confident. They know they will accomplish what they set out to do, because they already know what the outcome is. On the other, knowing when they’ll die and how, who their spouses will be, and so on, seems to leach their emotions of their intensity; they just don’t feel as much after a few trips. The only way to feel anything is to haze the new recruits or play chilling psychological games with civilians. For a few recruits, time traveling leads to debilitating maladaptive coping behavior or triggers latent mental illnesses. On top of a wonderfully complicated plot, The Psychology of Time Travel is one of the best “set up a scenario and let’s see what happens” books I’ve read in a long time.

The more I read The Psychology of Time Travel, the more I enjoyed it. The characters are fascinatingly warped and the moving parts of the plot slide around before satisfactorily clicking into place. It’s the kind of book where, at the end, you see that everything up to that point was perfectly placed, necessary, even fated. It’s the kind of plot mastery that I absolutely adore; I got a story that was utterly gripping, but only saw the author’s pen at work at the very end. Reading The Psychology of Time Travel is like watching an elaborate magic trick and getting to learn how it worked afterwards.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

metafiction · review · science fiction

Same Same, by Peter Mendelsund

If anyone could work out the precise formula for productive creativity would never have to worry about money every again–or for their children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, etc. etc. But one has to wonder, especially after reading Same Same by Peter Mendelsund (or seen Hollywood’s lineup for the last several years), if devising a formula wouldn’t strip the life out of whatever the mass produced artists came up with. In this strange, constantly morphing novel, Percy Frobisher arrives at the Freehold, an experimental artists’ community. Percy arrives with a vague plan to create something and a drug habit. This art makes sense. Subsequent events get distinctly surreal.

As soon as he arrives at Freehold, Percy begins to take stock of his new environment. Freehold is an elaborately landscaped dome in the middle of an unnamed desert. Everything the residents want will be provided, so long as they always wear their uniforms and make progress on their projects. There are poets, various species of artists, data analysts, archaeologists, philosophers, and others, all working on elaborate, highly conceptual work that might only be comprehensible to people with very specialized PhDs. The residents must also attend group sessions, document their progress, and give a Discourse™. In the group sessions and in Percy’s interactions with the other residents, I saw that all of the residents seem to have the same problem. They have gone so deep into their minds that they’ve lost the ability to communicate with others. They also can’t stop digging. One artist, who labels things for their project, noticed that the labels needed labels—a train of though that will clearly lead no where sensible.

As Same Same progresses (unlike the artists at Freehold), disturbing events occur and equally disturbing themes arise. Percy sees a strange attack that no one will talk about. The director and the admins hound Percy for progress. The other residents seem to be sliding further off kilter. Perhaps most unsettling of all is that it all seems terribly futile. Creativity can’t be forced. If anyone tries, they just end up with incomprehensible nonsense. And copying anyone’s method strips the life and soul out of the work.

Just when I thought I was getting the hang of Same Same, events fall even further into chaos. Percy’s drug habit gets worse. The other residents act even more strangely. Freehold starts to collapse under the weight of heat, sand, and curiously purposeful paper. The only way to understand this part, I think, is to read it metaphorically—a strategy that works very well as I started to wonder just how reliable Percy is as a narrator. Anyone who wants to know who Percy really is and what Freehold actually is will have to read Same Same themselves.

Same Same is a challenge to read, but fascinating. It’s definitely the sort of book I would want to read with other English majors because there is so much to pick apart and talk about. It’s got so many layers that I’m sure one reading doesn’t do this book justice. This is one of the smartest books I’ve read in a long time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

literary fiction · review · science fiction

Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, by Elizabeth McCracken

Elizabeth McCracken has lurked on the edge of my bookish awareness for a while, praised by other readers whose opinion I trust. But my aversion to short stories has always steered me away until. Now that I’ve finished Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry: Stories, I’m a little miffed at my past self for not diving in earlier. These thoughtful, often funny stories all feature cuckoos, people who either don’t fit into their families or who are made to feel as though they don’t belong.

Some of the standouts from this collection include:

“Some Have Entertained Angels, Unaware” is an uncomfortable but fascinating tale of a found family. After their mother dies, the narrator’s father starts to take in boarders. This in itself isn’t so unusual. What is unusual is that the narrator’s father is only interested in taking in boarders who have an interesting story to tell. Money is not a priority. And then, one day after years of life with a parade of oddballs, the narrator’s father disappears. Thankfully, the oddballs are more responsible (and less macabre than the father) and decide among themselves to raise the two children left behind.

“Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” is possibly my favorite story in the collection. In this story, Aunt Helen Beck comes to stay with one of her many relations. Aunt Helen Beck is notorious in the family for dropping in and staying for months or years. She’s not onerous company; she tries to make herself useful wherever she goes. The problem is that no one seems to be sure how they’re related to this brusque, practical woman with a past that is never the same way twice. Aunt Helen Beck is definitely a character for my growing pantheon of audacious old ladies.

“Secretary of State” is bittersweet funny story that vies with “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” for my favorite tale in the collection. In this novel, a young narrator sees her sensitive father struggle with bombastic siblings-in-laws. The Barrons debate endless with themselves about what would be the worst fate for one of their children, what they would do if they were suddenly in charge of the government, and what everyone in their extended family should do for a living. They are absolutely sure of their decision-making abilities, to catastrophic effect for the narrator’s father. In the end, the narrator and her mother have to make a choice about which side they’re on and if they’re willing to pay a terrible price for making the right decision.

The reactions to these cuckoos range from grudging tolerance to horror to ostracism. I fully realize that my summaries might make these stories sound more grim than they actually are. Thankfully, McCracken’s wit keeps things from getting too heavy; I really loved her turns of phrase and sharp observations about her quirky characters. I laughed more often than I felt teary. In addition to their wonderful writing, the stories also feel complete in themselves. (Too short stories are one of my big problems with the format.) I didn’t feel as though things were wrapping up too quickly, so I have no hesitation in recommending these stories even to readers who don’t like short stories. Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry is one of the best collections I think I’ve ever read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who feel like a cuckoo in their family or who have someone in their family they don’t understand.

review · science fiction

Here and Now and Then, by Mike Chen

The wonderfully gripping novel, Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen, opens with one of the worst moments in Kin Stewart’s life. Kin is on a routine mission to stop a time-traveling mercenary from meddling with history when he is shot right in the beacon that allows him to return to his own time. Instead of going back to 2142, Kin is stuck in 1996.

Eighteen years later, after Kin has built a new life for himself, an agent from the Temporal Corruption Bureau comes to retrieve him. Kin has a wife and daughter he loves in 2014 and a decent job at an IT firm. Even with the lapses in his memory and bad headaches, Kin is content with his life. When a retrieval agent, who turns out to be his previously best friend Markus, comes for him, it is not the rescue he had hoped for back in 1996. He fights hard to stay in 2014, but eventually goes back to 2142 after extracting a promise that his family will be done right by.

Complicated? Not hardly. Kin and his faulty memory are thrust back into his life in 2142. Only two weeks passed in the future while he experienced 18 years. Still, Kim might have been able to re-acclimate to his actual time if he hadn’t figured out a way to send emails to his fourteen-year-old daughter back in 2014…which leads to his daughter unwittingly becoming a temporal threat to the TCB. It isn’t long before Kin has to figure out a way to go back and save his child.

Here and Now and Then is beautifully written, full of complex plotting and terrific character building. Readers who enjoy time travel stories will love this book. My summary above doesn’t do justice to Chen’s skill at creating a knotty time travel paradox while keeping it all as plausible as possible. Kin and his previous/future fiancée, Penny, are great characters, who are so well drawn that they give emotional depth to this wild ride of a novel. Here and Now and Then is one of the best books I’ve read in a while. It’s certainly one of the best time travel novels I’ve ever read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweis.

review · science fiction

Sourdough, by Robin Sloan

Food is life. Food can also be a joy. Sourdough, by Robin Sloan, tells us a story about the tension between those who seek maximum efficiency and strip the joy out of life and those who seek to find the best expressions of food that feeds the body and the soul. This sounds very serious and existential, especially considering how delightfully silly it is as protagonist Lois Clary deals with a strangely powerful sourdough starter and bleeding edge Silicon Valley firms. In the audiobook version I had, the reader tells the tale in a lively narration that I enjoyed very much.

Lois Clary is a new comer to San Francisco when she takes a job as a programmer for robot arms. The company’s objective is to make manual labor obsolete for people by training robot arms to do all kinds of work. The work is stressful and all consuming and Lois suffers physically after long hours at the office. She even starts eating slurry, a nutritive gel that her co-workers consume, in the hope that it will make her feel better. One day, a menu arrives advertising a spicy soup with sourdough bread. The double spicy combo is so good, so just what Lois needed, that she falls in love with it. So much so, that it’s a blow when the men who make and deliver her double spicy and bread have to leave the United States.

On the day that the men leave San Francisco, one of them gifts Lois with a crock of the starter used to make the bread she loves. Lois is not a baker but she becomes one so that she can use the strange, occasionally humming starter. Her decision to bake leads her on an incredible journey. Events snowball like the reproducing bacteria in her starter. Before she knows it, Lois is baking for her coworkers and for a new, experimental farmers market that also sells coffee roasted with lasers and tube grown barramundi. The plot really kicks off when Lois’ starter starts to behave even more strangely than normal. To say any more would ruin the gleefully whacky ending of this novel.

Each chapter gets a little weirder and a little sillier, but it’s all underpinned by a more serious question about the value of food. Sourdough ultimately argues that food is not just fuel and should be treated with respect. When people seek maximum efficiency in work or in nutrition, they end up stripping those things of their quality and value. The possibly quixotic quest of Lois’ colleagues at the new market want to maintain that value and refine their craft. Thankfully for us readers, this fight goes down with a nice, tangy slice of sourdough.

historical fiction · review · science fiction

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson is the kind book I pick up just because of the cover. After all, how can one resist a cover that has a woman with octopus tentacles on it? Throw in time travel and I’m sold. In this novella, Minh, an ecological restorer is offered a job she can’t refuse. Her usual gig is to monitor rivers and snowpack to help sustain water in the newly habitable surface communes on a ruined earth. But her nemesis of a corporation offers to pay her to travel back in time to 2024 BCE to map the total ecosystem of the Tigris and the Euphrates so that, perhaps, they might be recreated. 

Minh is a delightfully prickly woman of the future. She is a part of the plague baby generation, a generation that was decimated by a variety of epidemics that ripped through the subterranean cities that humans retreated to in the face of ecological disasters. The plague babies (some of whom are genetically or physically modified to survive on the surface) struck out for the blighted surface to try and re-create surface life. They’ve survived in a few places, but most of these colonies are struggling because the banks that finance everything aren’t seeing a big enough return on their investment. It’s no wonder that Minh is bitter. 

It’s a surprise to her friends that she’s even willing to work with one of the biggest of the corporations making a go of it on the surface. Years ago, they were the ones who pulled the plug on Minh’s big project to restore the Colorado River. Minh somehow sees her way to bidding for this company’s plan to use time travel to recreate the Tigris and Euphrates ecosystem. As things usually do in fiction, things start to go awry as soon as Minh and her landing party arrive in 2024 BCE. There are hints at the beginnings of each chapter about just how wrong things can get when the group disturbs the heavily armed people who are already living there. 

This novella completely hooked me. I loved the characters and the advanced science that they employ. Seeing cultures from opposite ends of history in conflict is wonderfully original and entertaining. The best part, I think, is the ending. Something happens that has huge implications about what it means to be able to time travel. The ending completely changed how I saw the book. Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach is a great adventure story.