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The best recent science fiction – reviews roundup

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images

Elysium Fire

Alastair Reynolds excels at world building – his impressive backlist attests to that – but he’s also a master at constructing complex technological, far-future societies peopled by fully rounded characters. In Elysium Fire (Gollancz, £14.99), the Glitter Band is a vast ring of spatial habitats orbiting the planet of Yellowstone. Each is a self-governing autonomy, where citizens vote instantly via brain implants on matters political and social. Violent crime is rare in the affluent Glitter Band, and the judiciary known as the Prefects instead investigate crimes related to voting. When brain implants cause a series of deaths across the habitats, it’s down to Inspector Dreyfus, ably assisted by sidekicks Parver and Ng, to track down the killer. Elysium Fire is a tremendously assured read, a fast-paced page-turner that delivers a well thought out story and characters you’ll come to care about.

Senlin Ascends

In Josiah Bancroft’s debut novel, Senlin Ascends (Orbit, £8.99), originally self-published in 2013, schoolteacher Thomas Senlin and his bride Marya make the four-day journey across the desert to honeymoon at the fabled Tower of Babel, armed with a guidebook to the tower and high hopes for the future. Soon after their arrival, however, Senlin loses Marya in the teeming crowds at the base of the tower, and so begins his heart-rending ascent of the levels – or Ringdoms, each one a brilliantly drawn other world – as the mild-mannered, reasonable Senlin searches in desperation for the love of his life. What is remarkable about this novel, quite apart from its rich, allusive prose, is Bancroft’s portrayal of Senlin, a good man in a desperate situation, and the way he changes in response to his experiences in his ascent. Senlin Ascends has been garnering a lot of praise, and rightly so.

Spring Tide

Chris Beckett’s stunning third collection, Spring Tide (Corvus, £15.99), gathers 21 previously unpublished stories ranging from the fantastical to the mainstream. The volume is framed by two stories, “Cellar” and “Sky”, which chart the descent, literally and metaphorically, of loner Jeremy Burnet, who discovers thousands of mysterious rooms beneath his suburban semi. In “The End of Time”, the ethereal Eli lives through the life span of every creature that ever existed on Earth, while in “The Great Sphere” opposing factions fight for domination of a sphere embedded in a mountainside and etched with abstruse pronouncements. The two finest stories are “Rage”, in which the narrator is made to face up to his own and the west’s hypocrisy in a meeting with an African youth in a Malawian cafe, and “Spring Tide”, which simply but with devastating effect uses the metaphor of the tide to bring hope to a fractured marriage. Arthur C Clarke award-winner Beckett depicts frail human beings struggling with often overwhelming emotional trauma and occasionally achieving redemption, set against the backdrop of an indifferent universe. The result is a brilliantly different take on what it means to be alive in the 21st century.

The Only Harmless Great Thing

Brooke Bolander’s short fiction has been garnering acclaim and awards since 2015, and her debut novella, The Only Harmless Great Thing (Tor, £8.25), is a fractured, episodic alternate history told in her characteristically poetic prose style. Skipping between the early years of the 20th century and the near future, the narrative follows the terminally ill Regan, dying from radiation poisoning, and linguist Kat. What links these women are elephants, which in Bolander’s fable communicate with humans by sign language. Regan is teaching elephants to take over the lethal job of the Radium Girls – women employed to apply luminous paint to watch dials – while Kat’s task is to use the matriarchal elephants’ handing down of stories to each successive generation as a warning to humanity of the dangers of stored nuclear waste. Bolander’s meditation on exploitation is made all the more poignant by being inspired by two real-life events: the radioactive poisoning of female workers in the US radium industry between 1917 and 1926, and the electrocution of Topsy the elephant in 1903.

The Feed

Imagine a world in which everyone is hardwired into social media and virtual reality, where the need to read is a thing of the past and digital instructions give us all the guidance we need via voices in the head. Imagine a society addicted to constant online approbation and incessant entertainment … Now imagine the effect on this society when all this is ripped away and human beings are left to their own devices. That’s the intriguing premise of Nick Clark Windo’s compulsively readable The Feed (Headline, £16.99), a terrifyingly bleak dystopia extrapolating from our increasing reliance on social media. Six years after the Feed collapsed, brought down by hackers, Kate and Tom are searching for their abducted daughter in a ravaged landscape reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Windo’s first novel is a noirish thriller told with verve and some fine plot twists.

Eric Brown’s latest novel is Binary System (Solaris). To buy any of these titles go to guardianbookshop.com.

This article titled "The best recent science fiction – reviews roundup" was written by Eric Brown, for The Guardian on Friday 9 February 2018 12.00pm

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