You’ve probably never rooted for giant lobsters before, but when hard science fiction meets ethnography in James L. Cambias’s “ A Darkling Sea ”(Tor, $25.99), you will. This witty, erudite novel chronicles the expedition of a scientific team diving into the icy seas of the planet Ilmatar to study its lobster-like inhabitants. The scientists have won permission for this study from the Sholen, six-limbed, extraterrestrial creatures who forbid any human interaction with the Ilmatarans. That agreement holds until a self-serving media diva with the diving team gets too close while observing his subject. He discovers that the Ilmatarans wish to study humans with the same type of scholarly and rigorous scientific methods, which results in a hilarious, pulp-fiction-style disaster. The novel moves among all three species as each tries to overcome communication barriers while promoting cultural ideologies and deciphering political agendas (the Ilmatarans only speak in “clicks”; the Sholen form friendships and alliances through sexual touching). The use of military force to protect planetary interests is wonderfully undercut when each species’s scientists sneak off to study one another. An epic battle results in heavy casualties, but the novel manages to end with the deep, hopeful yearning we have to explore the mysteries of all creatures and worlds around us.
Jeremy Bentham once defined the “measure of right and wrong” as whatever provided “the greatest good to the greatest number of people.” That philosophy can be terrifying when applied to entire planets — at the cost of prepubescent girls. In “ Honor’s Knight ,” by Rachel Bach (forthcoming from Orbit; paperback, $15), a species known as the phantoms wipes out any planet it comes in contact with. An elite task force, The Eyes, has developed a secret weapon to keep this enemy at bay, but it involves the enslavement of kidnapped girls who can manipulate the energy field the phantoms use. “The Daughters” writhe in pain every time they protect another planet. In the center of this dark space opera is Devi Morris, a mercenary who has a soot-like virus spreading over her body that can defeat the phantoms and almost anyone else. This puts her in an ethical quandary: Whom should she try to help — The Eyes or The Daughters, especially when she discovers that the phantoms are only trying to survive? Amid all the deeper moral implications are great space battles, awesome shootouts and enough betrayals and alliances to rival “A Game of Thrones.”
When you’re battling the flu, there comes a terrible moment when you feel sure you’ll never get better and will instead turn into some ghastly swamp beast. Part thriller, part political zombie apocalypse, Scott Sigler’s “ Pandemic ”(Crown, $26) plays on that all-too-common anxiety as it opens with the thoughts of a mechanical virus — not quite sentient, but terribly logical. Hidden within a soda-can sized container at the bottom of Lake Michigan, it is unleashed upon the biggest cities of the world, turning some people into powerful leaders, others into hosts and some into crazed yellow monsters. But the delicious part of this novel is how much it exploits our fears of illness. Dr. Margaret Montoya and her team of scientists begin to track infection by monitoring the sales of Tylenol and other cold medicines in various regions. It’s a race to see whether doctors can develop the antibodies faster than the virus can mutate. The characters are likable, even the ones who fall prey to the plague’s more monstrous side effects, and the snappy dialogue makes this a fun read. “Pandemic” is the third book in a trilogy, following “Infected” and “Contagious,” but you need not have read the other two to fully appreciate the wonder of a virus that will do anything it can to survive.
Hightower is the author of “Elementari Rising.”