Sometimes, science fiction is less about the science or the fiction and more about the unbelievable tech: intelligent robots, self-mending spaceships, fabricators that can rearrange atoms into food or weapons. Unbelievable to a point, that is, if you think about how many classic sci-fi accoutrements are now generally available (tablet computers!) or achingly close (jetpacks!). But whether you’ll be able to buy it soon or not, there’s a lot of cool hardware to drool over in the latest crop of speculative novels.
1Take for instance, Rule 34 , by Charles Stross (Ace, $25.95). Edinburgh detective inspector Liz Kavanaugh heads an undistinguished police unit. Her bailiwick: investigating nasty Internet memes that go beyond viral, into the real world. (The book’s title refers to the so-called Rule 34 of the Internet, often rendered as: “If it exists, there is porn of it.”) This is a nearish future that resembles ours but with better toys, such as the “fabbers” — 3-D printing devices — now in wide use, some of it illegal (“everything from counterfeit pharmaceuticals through to design patterns for nightmares”). Kavanaugh is tracking what seems to be a serial killer connected to the fabber underground whose weapons are hacked home appliances, like a vacuum cleaner that drives itself into someone’s bathtub. For some reason, Stross tells this story in the second person, rotating through different characters, including a rather pathetic ex-con hacker and a sociopathic businessman with a seriously creepy briefcase. That choice, along with the book’s screeching halt of an ending, disappoints, but there’s a lot of fun stuff along the way, like self-driving cars, eyeglasses that provide a constant news and information feed, and a neat bit of public transit tech: If you’re really in a hurry, you can bid electronically to have a bus detour to your destination. Metro, take note.
2When an ice hauler gets nuked, sparking war between human colonists on Mars and in the Asteroid Belt, its few remaining crew members, led by officer Jim Holden, are determined to bring the perpetrators to justice. Meanwhile, on the dwarf planet Ceres, a cop named Miller is on a noir quest to locate a missing young woman. The two men are soon bound together by a mystery that threatens to devastate all human life. Leviathan Wakes , by James S.A. Corey (Orbit; paperback, $15.99), is deeply satisfying classic space opera, with multitasking space suits, cinematic battle scenes and deadpan geek banter, plus an exquisitely evil corporation pulling the strings. (“Game of Thrones” fans take note: James S.A. Corey is a nom de plume for the writing pair Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, and the latter works as a personal assistant to George R.R. Martin.) But this novel departs from the template in both the quality of its writing — there are some really nice passages — and its devotion to realism: Humans are not omniscient, broken bodies do not heal overnight, and streaking across space (even in the most tricked-out ships) takes time.
3The title character of The Quantum Thief , by Hannu Rajaniemi (Tor, $24.99), is the infamous master criminal Jean le Flambeur, and the book begins as he breaks out of prison to take on a major heist in Oubliette, a peculiar city on Mars where time is currency. On his tail is Isidore Beautrelet, an architecture student making his name as a “wonderboy” freelance investigator. Thanks to remade memories and other tricks of time and space, neither man really knows what’s going on. Nor will many readers, at least to begin with. There are scores of complex ideas in this impressive first novel, but while the plot is fast-paced, Rajaniemi is slow to provide explanations for his clever creations. Or, perhaps to understand them all, you need to have done graduate work in string theory (in which Rajaniemi, a Finn living in Scotland, has his PhD). One of Rajaniemi’s most striking imaginings has to do with privacy settings, not on the Internet but in real-life social interactions, mediated by a technology called gevulot (Hebrew for “borders”). Whether walking around the city or sitting in your own home, you can choose who sees you, how much they can identify you, whether they can share your personal memories, or whether they just view you as a “blurry placeholder for a person, wrapped in privacy.” This is certainly an idea whose time has come.
Sklaroff is a Washington-based writer and editor.