David Burr Gerrard’s new novel, The Epiphany Machine , is hilarious. It’s a razor-sharp alternate history that imagines the United States — mainly New York — shaped by a mysterious piece of technology. This odd sewing machine-like device tattoos a short, pithy truth on each person’s arm. These tattoos have inspired history-changing events, including John Lennon’s songs and his assassination. The novel includes excerpts from other books and interviews with those tattooed or affected by the machine. But it’s mainly the memoir of Venter Lowood, whose entire life has been defined by the Epiphany Machine. His parents were once in the inner circle of a cult, but his mother abandoned him due to a revelation from her tattoo. Venter spends the novel trying to find meaning in his life, all in defiance of the phrase emblazoned on his forearm: “DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS.” Venter’s circular arguments about himself and society are funny even when they’re depressing. Gerrard’s novel emphasizes just how desperately people want confirmation of their place in the world.
The reissue of Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit , originally published in 2006, offers a shrewd, timely exploration of gender. The main character, Dorrit, has never had a child and is unmarried, making her unneeded by this society’s standards. As a “dispensable” person, she agrees to go to the Unit, where she enjoys a luxurious lifestyle and wonderful new friends. But in return, she and these older citizens are subjected to physical tests, drug experiments and, eventually, organ harvesting. The novel has been compared to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but where Margaret Atwood’s classic focuses on procreation, Holmqvist’s novel feels broader, holding both capitalism and traditional gender roles under a harsh light. Dorrit is honest about her life, and she wonders whether the freedom she had in her youth was worth the price she pays now. Any woman — young or old — will relate to her plight.
Tomorrow’s Kin , by Nancy Kress, starts off with a strong, intriguing angle. Theoretical geneticist Dr. Marianne Jenner makes a seemingly minor discovery that catches the interest of aliens camping out in New York. They inform her that she and a team of human scientists will be crucial in preventing a disaster in 10 months that could end humanity. The first half of the book swells with promise and interesting ideas, but by the middle, it grows soggy with sappy characterizations. It also features a cringe-inducing stereotype of a loud black woman: Sissy, Marianne’s assistant, with “frizzy curls.” Sissy didn’t understand how bad her college was until she went to fancy colleges with Marianne; she may not have book smarts, but she’s got sense! Kress’s novel, the first of a projected trilogy, is based on her Nebula Award-winning novella of the same name. It reads as breezily, and fans of aliens and first-contact stories may be compelled to pick up the second volume, forthcoming next spring.
Everdeen Mason reviews science fiction and fantasy every month for The Washington Post. See what else she’s reading at Goodreads.
By David Burr Gerrard
G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 432 pp. $27
By Ninni Holmqvist
Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy
Other Press. 288 pp. Paperback, $15.95
By Nancy Kress
Tor. 352 pp. $25.99