The Folio Society has released its latest slipcased, illustrated SF edition, this time Robert Heinlein’s 1961, Hugo Award-winning opus Stranger in a Strange Land (The Folio Society, £79.95). It’s a provocative social satire in which a young man raised by Martians returns to Earth and fixes his unsophisticated eye on the religions of the world. Finding them corrupt, he starts his own cult, which grants its followers psychic powers and holds out the promise of transcendence to a higher state of being.
A weird fusion of hippy idealism and Randian libertarianism, Stranger in a Strange Land was controversial in its day, and the questions it poses may no longer be as pertinent, 60 years on. Nonetheless, it deserves a place on any self-respecting SF reader’s shelf.
Derek B Miller’s Radio Life (Jo Fletcher Books, £16.99) has much in common with another religion-baiting, mid-20th-century SF classic: Walter M Miller’s (no relation) A Canticle for Leibowitz. Both novels are set in a post-apocalyptic future where humanity’s remnants scavenge through the ruins of civilisation for artefacts from times gone by. Both, too, explore the abuse of knowledge as a means of maintaining power; but whereas the older book delivers a broadside against theocratic oppression and hypocrisy, Radio Life stays largely secular, as two opposing factions — the technology-embracing “Commonwealth” and the Luddite-like “Keepers” — vie to shape the future by controlling the past.
With its three parts entitled “Paradiso”, “Purgatorio” and “Inferno” — inverting the order of The Divine Comedy — the narrative circles around a large cast of characters. Principal among them is Elimisha, an Archive Runner who discovers access to the internet after getting trapped in a bomb shelter. (Someone in confinement finding solace and connection via the online world? We can all relate to that right now.) Miller has previously written droll contemporary thrillers such as 2013’s Norwegian by Night, and his first foray into SF is a similarly smart and thought-provoking piece of work.
CK McDonnell is likewise an author making his SF debut after establishing himself in another genre. As Caimh McDonnell, his pair of crime series The Dublin Trilogy and McGarry Stateside have been well-received. Prior to that he was a stand-up comedian, and humour is to the forefront in urban fantasy The Stranger Times (Bantam Press, £14.99).
Protagonist Hannah Willis, having forcibly disentangled herself from her wealthy, philandering husband, winds up as assistant editor at The Stranger Times, a low-rent, Manchester-based weekly dealing with all things paranormal. When somebody associated with the periodical is killed, an investigation by Hannah and her fellow journalists uncovers a supernatural demimonde. Such things as werewolves and wizards exist, and malign forces are on the rise.
What saves the book from being just a retread of rather familiar material is McDonnell’s blisteringly comic-caustic tone. The one-liners zing, the dialogue is a tennis match of witty banter, and the jokes and characterisation are often refreshingly non-PC.
Back to the post-apocalyptic future with Louise Carey’s Inscape (Gollancz, £14.99). London after a disaster known as the Meltdown is a divided city, with two corporations ruling its halves either side of the Thames. Heroine Tanta works as an agent for one of them, InTech, and is tasked with retrieving data files from perilous no man’s land the Unaffiliated Zone. The mission goes awry, and Tanta’s new assignment is to find out how the files were stolen in the first place. Conditioned from childhood to be loyal to her paymasters, she is partnered with an older man — the damaged, unorthodox Cole — and together the mismatched couple set about uncovering a mole within the company ranks.
Carey has previously co-written novels with her parents Linda and Mike Carey (the last famed for his The Girl With All the Gifts from 2014), and this, her first solo effort and the start of a trilogy, is a cool, classy cyberpunk riff on the cold war spy thriller.
In Tanta and her girlfriend Reet, Inscape has a same-sex relationship at its heart. So does Everina Maxwell’s Winter’s Orbit (Orbit, £8.99), although otherwise, in tone and setting, it could not be a more different prospect. This is no grim, Earth-bound dystopia but a galaxy-spanning space opera full of glamour, romance and courtly intrigue.
The focus is a marriage of convenience between Prince Kiem, black-sheep playboy of the Iskat Empire, and the more reserved Count Jainan, emissary of Thea, a far-flung vassal planet. Jainan’s recently deceased previous husband Taam was, it turns out, controlling and abusive, and his death may not have been accidental, meaning the newly-weds must not only come to terms with each other but collaborate to unravel a mystery, and the interstellar political stakes are high.
Maxwell’s style is genial and intimate, and if her novel skimps on the detailed universe-building, it makes up for it with artful characterisation.
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