Sunday, January 21, 2018

Three Philip K. Dick Award nominees

Three Philip K. Dick Award nominees

The nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award for Best SF Novel first published in paperback were announced the other day. They are:

The Book of Etta by Meg Elison (47North)
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (Orbit)
After the Flare by Deji Bryce Olukotun (The Unnamed Press)
The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt (Angry Robot)
Revenger by Alastair Reynolds (Orbit)
Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
All Systems Red by Martha Wells (

I confess I had had heard of neither The Book of Etta nor After the Flare before this nomination – which is, to be sure, one of the good things about awards! I had heard of both Six Wakes and Revenger – both look interesting, in fact – but I haven’t read either of them. I have, however, read the other three, all of which are good books, so I’ll review them in brief here.

Bannerless, by Carrie Vaughn (Mariner, 978-0-544-94730-6, $14.99, tpb, 275 pages) July 2017

This is the first novel set in Carrie Vaughn’s post-Apocalyptic sequence. That sequence already includes some excellent short stories (“Amaryllis”, “Astrophilia”, and “Bannerless” (a sort of beta version of the novel). One did wonder if she was going to do an alphabetic tour …) Technological civilization has collapsed, and, decades later, on what seems the California coast, a loose society has formed, built around essentially green principles, most notably an insistence on families earning the right to have children. This right is indicated by banners. So a “bannerless” child invites punishment for the parents, and often social ostracism for the (obviously blameless) children.

The novel is a mystery in form. The protagonist is Enid, an investigator, someone who travels among the local towns when something suspicious occurs. She is new at her job, and when a suspicious death is reported in Pasadan, her mentor, Tomas, suggests that she lead this investigation, with Tomas’ support. So, the main thread follows Enid and Tomas through their investigation, which concerns the death of a man. This man lived alone, perhaps due to his nature, but perhaps because he was a bannerless child. There is considerable political pressure to have the death considered an accident – and indeed, it seems, perhaps it was – but there are curious elements. And complicating factors – a connection to a prosperous local family, the general dislike of the victim – and, even, the presence of Enid’s former lover, Dak. (Not the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback!)

The second thread begins in Enid’s childhood, and follows her life up to the novel’s present. This thread allows us to see even more of the structure of this future society – including the families, which are extended in nature, and only partly based on genetic ties. We also see some hints of the time of the collapse – Enid has an “aunt” who is one of the few people still alive who remember the world before. And we follow Enid’s romance with Dak, a particularly talented musician (who ends up acting like a certain common depiction of contemporary rock stars).

It’s very fine work – building an interesting society, and at least suggesting some flaws in what at first glance seems a near-Utopian adaptation to post-Collapse conditions. (“Astrophilia”, in particular, is even better at poking at the complacent beliefs of that society in its virtue. It is an abiding fault of post-Apocalyptic writings (I’m looking at you, Edgar Pangborn!) to take a certain glee in the collapse of civilization, allowing its replacement by the author’s preferred social forms.) The murder mystery is solved plausibly (if not terrible surprisingly, but that isn’t necessarily a fault), and its solution also shows stresses in the society’s underpinnings. I liked the book a lot. A sequel, The Wild Roads, is due in 2018.

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (, 978-0765397539, $14.99, tpb, 160 pages) May 2017

I’m going to be a tad coy here, as my capsule review of this will be in the February Locus. So all I’ll say here is that I recommend this highly. I think it’s a long novella, by Nebula/Hugo rules, but perhaps it’s a short novel instead. (Either way, it’s definitely eligible for the Philip K. Dick Award.) This is great fun, about an android employed as security for a scientific team investigation an alien planet. The android, which calls itself murderbot, for reasons tied to its past, really just wants to watch old television, but it finds itself forced to deal with a real threat to its clients. Funny, thoughtful about AI rights, and good solid adventure. Tremendous fun, really. Two further stories in what is being called collectively The Murderbot Diaries are due in 2018.

The Wrong Stars, by Tim Pratt (Angry Robot, 978-0-85766-709-0, $7.99, mmpb, 396 pages) September 2017

This is really cool Space Opera, again lots of fun. As with most Space Opera, some of the science bits are a whole lot handwavy – and maybe that’s just fine, because, really, is present day science the be all and end all of reality? In some ways this reminded me of Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, and I thought maybe some more stories as well, which makes me think I ought to examine further and decide if there is now a popular subgenre of Space Opera concerning the almost soap-operatic interactions of a small varied spaceship crew.

One viewpoint character of The Wrong Stars is Callie, Captain of a spaceship, the White Raven, that does solo work and also occasionally works for the Trans-Neptunian Authority, in a future in which humanity has just stepped back from the brink of species disaster, having nearly ruined the Earth. Partly or perhaps mostly because of tech bartered from aliens called the Liars, Earth has been restored to a gardenlike state, and humans have occupied most of the Solar System. They have also colonized 29 planets, via wormhole bridges sold them by the Liars.

The other viewpoint character is Elena Oh. She was a crewmember on a Goldilocks ship – one of a number of starships sent to likely looking star systems in a Hail Mary attempt to save human civilization before the Liars appeared. These ships were slower than light, with the crew in suspended animation. Elena’s ship, the Anjou, has been found by the White Raven in Trans-Neptunian space, and it has been weirdly altered. Elena is the only person on board. And her memories are fractured, but they suggest that something very strange occurred in the system they finally reached … leading to Elena being sent back to the Solar System alone.

There is immediate sexual attraction between Elena and Callie (who are both recovering from relationships or crushes with men). This complicates their future interactions. But things are complicated anyway, with Callie’s crew consisting of a motley arrangement of folks, including an AI whom we soon gather is based on the personality of Callie’s ex. Elena’s memories of what happened on the system her ship had reached are critical as well – they seem to have encountered aliens unrelated to the Liars. Aliens who seem ready to forcefully modify the humans they encounter. Elena insists on trying to rescue her fellow crewmembers. And the tech Callie recovers on Elena’s ships seems gamechanging, and very scary – especially to the Liars.

The resolution turns on spectacular revelations about the nature of the Liars, and their true motivations, and about what Elena and her fellow crewmembers encountered as well. And the resolution is quite satisfying, and sets up some really interesting subsequent volumes. This will be at least a trilogy, I believe, with the next volume, The Dreaming Stars, due in 2018.

In summary, I have to say, I don’t have a strong preference for a winner of this award. I’d be happy with any of the three books I’ve read winning, and I trust that the other nominees are similarly good. All I can say is – do read these books! There are all both fund and intriguing.

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