Science Fiction and Fantasy

By Martin Morse Wooster
Sunday, May 28, 2006

Tomorrow on the Subcontinent

Scan the shelves of the science fiction section at your local bookstore, and you'll find all sorts of novels about adventure in the distant future. But the book you're least likely to find is the novel that aims to show us what the future will be like in 25 or 50 years.

Science fiction writers, in truth, haven't been very good predictors of the near future. Pick up an average sf novel from 1970, and you'll find that the writers of that era were expecting stronger rockets and weaker computers than we actually have now. And yet some prominent authors -- among them, John Brunner and Frederik Pohl -- studied scholarly journals, talked to experts and made surprisingly sophisticated guesses about the world of tomorrow. (Brunner predicted the use of computer "worms" in The Shockwave Rider , published in 1975.)

Today's sf writers have largely stopped trying to use what we know now to predict what will happen soon. Some writers have preferred to write in less research-heavy genres. Others believe in the "singularity," a semi-mystical notion that, in about 20 years, advances in technology will be so marvelous that the future is impossible even to imagine. Either way, readers who like sf books based on deep study of social trends have been gravely disappointed.

Ian MacDonald, however, has not heard the news that no one wants to read about the near future any more. His River of Gods: August 15, 2047 -- Happy Birthday, India (Pyr, $25) is a bold, brave look at India on the eve of its centennial, 41 years from now.

MacDonald has become increasingly popular in recent years, and it's easy to see why in this novel, his first to earn him a Hugo nomination. In River of Gods , the lives of nine characters, including a police officer, a journalist, an astronaut and the aide to a powerful politician, intertwine as India veers toward an apocalypse caused by a reckless search for cheap power. MacDonald predicts that India will be divided into several warring states, each with sophisticated robot armies. Gender switching -- and the abandonment of gender entirely -- will be commonplace. Artificial intelligence will be advanced enough so that machines will pass for humans most of the time.

MacDonald takes his readers from India's darkest depths to its most opulent heights, from rioting mobs and the devastated poor to high-level politicians and lavish parties. He handles his complex plot with flair and confidence and deftly shows how technological advances and social changes have subtly changed lives. River of Gods is a major achievement from a writer who is becoming one of the best sf novelists of our time.

Funny Future

Bruce Sterling is well known for his journalism and his column in Wired magazine, but writing fiction is what Sterling likes to do best. He made his mark as a leader of the "cyberpunk" movement of the 1980s, but at heart he is a satirist. He excels when he takes a simple idea and runs with it, as he often does in his fourth short story collection, Visionary in Residence: Stories (Thunder's Mouth; paperback, $15.95). For example, what would happen if you could swab your mouth for a genetic sample and use the genes to grow your own pet? In "Junk DNA," Sterling, collaborating with Rudy Rucker, shows the comic possibilities of having a lovable, blobby companion that is 100 percent you. In "User-Centric," written for a design magazine, Sterling takes ideas pitched during a marketing meeting -- an electronic tag for everything you own, for example, including the squirrels living in your yard -- to mock consumer excess.

Sterling has been writing for 30 years, but he still remains invigorating. Visionary in Paradise is a fine introduction to one of sf's brightest talents.

The Dreary Dead

Even devoted zombie fans will find David Wellington's Monster Island: A Zombie Novel (Thunder's Mouth; paperback, $13.95) to be a disappointment. In his debut, Wellington foresees that, sometime in the near future, a powerful virus will turn most of the world into zombies, save for a few fortunate survivors in Somalia. These survivors, however, need AIDS drugs and travel to Manhattan to get them. Can the plucky Somalis get the drugs and go home without being eaten?

Wellington never makes clear why the Somalis survived and why they have to cross the Atlantic to get the drugs. His characters' motivations are nonsensical, and their actions don't make much sense either. The reanimated mummies from the Metropolitan Museum of Art that inexplicably appear halfway through the book are as lifeless as Wellington's other undead characters.

Monster Island is the first of a trilogy. But not even zombie king George Romero's most devoted fans will have the time or patience to read Monster Nation or Monster Planet . ยท

Martin Morse Wooster, a former editor of the Wilson Quarterly and the American Enterprise, frequently reviews science fiction and fantasy.

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