There’s a lot to like about zombie plots: the squirm-worthy depictions of rotting flesh and devoured brains, the escapism of a license to kill something almost human. In Wicked Weeds: A Zombie Novel (Mandel Vilar), Pedro Cabiya takes these elements and adds twists, blending an intriguing dose of science, Caribbean lore and humor. The novel tells the story of an unnamed, self-aware zombie who spends his time trying to cure himself while disguising his undead condition. Physically, it’s simple. But the worst part about being a zombie is the loss of emotion and human connection, something the zombie is desperate to regain. To cure himself, the zombie sets out on an investigation of zombie pop culture and takes part in experiments in a laboratory he runs. Unfortunately, his lab partners are three volatile, sexy women. Cabiya hilariously documents the zombie’s interactions with these women, whose behavior increasingly baffles him. Cabiya’s treatment of his female characters is another source of discomfort and amusement. At first their sexuality seems to be a joke — they are little more than a sum of fleshy parts. But as the book progresses, their femininity seems to hold the key to the zombie’s cure. One of the women, the brilliant Dr. Isabelle Bellamy, seems to be investigating a similar subject. In fact, the novel is the sum of a collection of notes, including the zombie’s narrative, as she investigates a traumatic event of her childhood.
Emma Newman’s After Atlas (Roc) is a detective novel on acid. The book — a stand-alone sequel to last year’s “Planetfall” — follows Carlos Moreno, a detective with a major conflict of interest, as he investigates the murder of Alejandro Casales, a religious cult leader with major political influence in the United States. Casales helped raise Moreno after his mother abandoned him to join the Atlas, a spaceflight mission seeking a higher power. Casales’s murder is secondary to Moreno’s inner turmoil, though, as he grapples with the aftermath of years of suffering and abuse. Newman’s psychological insight is astute, but even better is her exploration of a future when people can print anything they need and have instant communication and access to information through a chip in their heads. If Newman’s first book left you hungry to know what happened to the Earth that the characters in that novel left behind, “After Atlas” has all the answers, delivered in a dreamy yet emotionally intense style. Even for those who haven’t read “Plantfall,” Newman has crafted a novel in which the political and emotional stakes are easy to understand and enjoy.
Set in 2162, Altered Starscape (Harper Voyager), by the prolific Ian Douglas, follows Lord Commander Grayson, who is responsible for military operations on a ship carrying millions trying to make contact with a higher-intelligence life form. The idea is to exchange culture and technology between species: Humans will get access to new technology for help in fighting a war. Grayson has politically damaging views on this plan, but before it’s enacted he and his crew are sucked into a black hole and spat out 4 billion years in the future, after the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies have collided. Grayson has to deal with continued political battles between other high-ranking officials on the ship, keep his populace calm and navigate a new, highly intelligent species who may consider assimilation nonnegotiable. Douglas’s novel features many of the hallmarks of the science fiction genre — the techy jargon, gruff and honorable military men, sexy female cyborgs, and the true horror: the loss of humanity’s place as the most evolved being in the universe. There can be great pleasure in revisiting tropes such as these in the way that one enjoys returning home for a familiar meal, and Grayson does solid work here in evoking them.
Everdeen Mason reviews science fiction and fantasy every month for The Washington Post.