By David Burr Gerrard (Putnam’s Sons)
In this razor-sharp alternate history, Gerrard imagines the United States — mainly New York — shaped by a mysterious piece of technology: an odd sewing machine-like device called the Epiphany Machine that tattoos a short, pithy truth on a person’s arm. These tattoos have inspired history-changing events, including John Lennon’s songs and his shooting. At the center of the novel is Venter Lowood, who is trying to find meaning in his life, in defiance of the phrase emblazoned on his forearm: Dependent on the opinion of others. The book is a dark, witty reminder of just how desperately people want confirmation of their place in the world.
By Maggie Shen King (Harper Voyager)
Through an almost satirical look into a near-future China, King’s debut makes a compelling argument that marriage is a method of societal control. Set in 2030, after the one-child policy skews the ratio of men to women, Wei-guo is one of many “leftover men” unmarried at the age of 40. He gets an opportunity to join a family as a third husband, the maximum allowed by law, and instantly falls in lust with May-ling. We hear from Wei-guo, May-ling and her two husbands as they struggle to figure out how far they are willing to go for family or country. King writes distinctive and sympathetic characters, and her vision of a not-so-far future is unnerving and thought-provoking.
By John Kessel (Saga Press)
Set in the 22nd century, this charming, sexy novel follows a man and a woman in two opposing cities on the moon. In the Society of Cousins, men give up the right to vote in exchange for an elevated and pampered status where they show off their skills as artists, athletes and lovers. The Society’s rival, Persepolis, is a city with patriarchal power structures more reflective of our own. The Society is deemed a threat by the patriarchal cities around it, and a committee is created to investigate the status of men — and potentially reveal secret weaponry created by a female scientist. Kessel has written a book about ideologies taken to extremes but also about how a person of character — a hero — is created.
By Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland (Morrow)
In this alt-historical novel, linguist Melisande Stokes meets a handsome military intelligence officer named Tristan Lyons, who offers her a chance to escape a smug supervisor at Harvard for a research project on magic. Quickly, the stakes rise as Melisande and her friends stumble upon warring politics, ambitions and agendas. This lengthy book is entirely composed of correspondence: letters, chat logs and redacted government documents. The unusual format allows the authors to create distinct voices for their endearing characters, explore relationships and describe the “science” of magic and time travel. There’s a lot going on here — stylistic flourishes, comedic pratfalls, romance and science — but it’s handled deftly. Those familiar with Stephenson will recognize his humor and ideas, while Galland (author of “Stepdog,” “Crossed” and others) brings a fresh and irresistible voice to this ambitious novel.
By N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
“The Stone Sky” is the finale of Jemisin’s much-lauded “Broken Earth” trilogy. Our reluctant heroine, Essun, is still searching for her missing daughter in the Stillness but feels responsible for the community that she saved — yet partially destroyed — with her orogeny, the ability to harness the energy of the Earth. Meanwhile, we finally get to know our narrator, the mysterious stone eater Hoa, and how he came to be. Essun, Hoa and Essun’s daughter, Nassun, have been shaped in different ways by the racist caste system that rules their world. Jemisin uses her fictional Earth to more clearly define the repercussions of slavery and genocide on not only humans but also the Earth itself. Her books have abstracted real-life race issues in a way that serves to magnify the truth.
Everdeen Mason reviews science fiction and fantasy every month for The Washington Post.
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