Review: Elder Race

Title: Elder Race (November 16, 2021)
Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Pages: 176


Lynesse must seek out a reclusive wizard living in a forbidden tower. That concept alone (and the gorgeous cover) drew me to this novella, but the plot gets turned on its head almost immediately with a delicious bait and switch. The storyline that follows the twist was not quite compelling enough to sustain my interest, but the ending was strong and satisfying.

This novella is a good reminder of what an interesting writer Adrian Tchaikovsky has become and I’ve never been disappointed by one of his stories. As an aside, reading this in conjunction with AppleTV+’s Foundation series made for a nice genre pairing, I must say.

★★★¾

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Interview: Lena Nguyen, author of We Have Always Been Here

The Speculative Shelf is very excited to welcome Lena Nguyen to the blog today to discuss her excellent debut novel, We Have Always Been Here (out July 6, 2021) from DAW Books.

You can find our review of the book here.

Publisher’s summary: Misanthropic psychologist Dr. Grace Park is placed on the Deucalion, a survey ship headed to an icy planet in an unexplored galaxy. Her purpose is to observe the thirteen human crew members aboard the ship—all specialists in their own fields—as they assess the colonization potential of the planet, Eos. But frictions develop as Park befriends the androids of the ship, preferring their company over the baffling complexity of humans, while the rest of the crew treats them with suspicion and even outright hostility.
 
Shortly after landing, the crew finds themselves trapped on the ship by a radiation storm, with no means of communication or escape until it passes—and that’s when things begin to fall apart. Park’s patients are falling prey to waking nightmares of helpless, tongueless insanity. The androids are behaving strangely. There are no windows aboard the ship. Paranoia is closing in, and soon Park is forced to confront the fact that nothing—neither her crew, nor their mission, nor the mysterious Eos itself—is as it seems.


1. We Have Always Been Here is a tense psychological sci-fi thriller. I found your writing to really convey tension in a palpable way. Is there anything specific you focus on in your prose/word choice to evoke this feeling?

Thank you so much for your kind words, and thank you for having me for this interview!

Writing suspense and tense scenes has always been a balancing act for me. Typically, I tend to focus on making sentences very fluid and stream-of-consciousness, sort of scattered in subject, in order to replicate how fast the character’s thoughts must be moving in those heart-stopping moments. I also employ a lot of structural interruptions—such as sentences that are cut off in the middle of their train of thought by sudden action—as well as a lot of rapidfire internal questions. Park, the protagonist of We Have Always Been Here, has a habit of thinking about a million things at once in order to make sense of her situation, even as someone is chasing her down a hallway or menacing her with a gun; so the narration is peppered with a lot of How could this be happening? What about the security guard? Did the killer get him already, or—

That kind of rapid movement and pacing really helps ramp up and maintain the tension of the scene, I think—though you have to be careful to avoid getting so hectic and frenzied that readers lose track of what’s going on!

2. Your story jumps back and forth between Dr. Grace Park’s present and past, as well as a mysterious viewpoint told through video log transcriptions — how did you decide on this structure? 

That’s a good question! Skirting spoilers as much as possible, I think playing around with space and time (and dreams and reality) is a large part of the book’s main conceit as well as a driving factor of its horror. The patients aboard the ship begin to have difficulty distinguishing between their waking states and nightmares. Park has difficulty making sense of the physical space of the ship; corridors seem to meld together, or turn into spaces that they shouldn’t, and you’re not really sure if this is due to her bad sense of direction or something else. Similarly, time begins to fold into itself in asymmetric ways: Park’s past and present (and future) become interconnected and hard to distinguish from each other, and you start to see in a very visceral way how her relationships with characters in the past are informing her relationships in the present: with her friends, android companions, adversaries, and even love interests. Eventually, past and present timelines get creased into the very same chapters or paragraphs as each other, instead of being clearly divided between “standalone” flashback chapters and present-day chapters—so the narrative structure of the book starts to reflect the overall progressive blending of space and time. I really wanted it to be this way from the start, partially to reflect what the characters themselves are experiencing on the ship, and partially because I knew that exploring Park’s past would be an important part of uncovering the mysteries that are plaguing the ship in the present.

As for the video transcripts, I’ve always been a big fan of the “found footage” genre of horror films. There’s an added layer to “found footage” in text and prose that really interests me—there’s something about the transcript format that leaves even more room for the imagination, subtext and space for the things unseen and unsaid. It allows you to fill in the gaps for yourself in a way that straightforward prose with an actual narrator doesn’t always allow. With a narrator, you have someone—even an omniscient, third-person observer—telling you what’s going on, laying out the scene for you, giving subtle shape to the narrative with their perspective and what they’re drawing your attention to. With “found footage” or the video transcripts, it’s more distanced, neutral: you are limited to what the “camera” records, what footage has survived, and you’re left to draw your own conclusions about what it’s all capturing (and not capturing). With the video transcripts in the book, you don’t initially know where or when all of this is taking place, who or what you’re embodying as the viewer, or the connection between when the videos were filmed versus when they were discovered versus when they were actually watched… It was another cool way to play around with space and time, alongside what was going on with Park!

3. Grace is one of two psychologists aboard the ill-fated Deucalion mission, which includes twelve other humans and a bevy of androids. What made you want to tap into Grace’s perspective?

Sonny from I, Robot (2004)

I feel like, in a lot of android media, we’re very preoccupied with the android characters’ journeys to becoming more human. We focus a lot on what happens to an android when it’s dropped into a human environment, how it adapts and learns and reacts to what’s going on around it. (Think Sonny in I, Robot.) And I was very interested in exploring the dynamic from the other way around: what happens to a person when their developmental stages are influenced very strongly by machine intelligences and android understandings of the world? How does that change them, alter the course of their personalities and even lives? Does it at all?

So the character of Park started with that question: what would a naturally introverted character be like if she was raised by androids? What would her thought process entail? I wanted to capture the comfort and security she might feel, surrounded by friends and family who are literally bound to never leave or conflict with her—but who still challenge her in certain ways, especially with their shortcomings. Vice-versa, I wanted to capture the alienation and skittishness she might feel about the unpredictability of human relationships and interactions, as opposed to the stability and safety of her android companions.

Her occupation as the ship’s psychologist stemmed from all of that. I feel that, in many ways, Park’s upbringing has made her into an observer of human activity, an outsider looking in, and her career in human psychology has been part of her effort to overcome that barrier. You see that persisting in her job on the Deucalion, as she’s tasked with observing what the other crewmembers are doing, always watching but never fully participating or understanding. That’s the perspective I wanted to tap into. She wants badly to understand, it’s a psychologist’s job to understand, but because she was brought up in such a different way, she faces certain obstacles that, say, a combat specialist or a pilot wouldn’t. Much of this book is about understanding, and what Park herself can or can’t comprehend, and her role as the ship’s orbiter and psychologist reflects that.

4. There’s a cinematic quality to this story and I think a film adaptation should surely be in order! Is there a film or TV show out there, sci-fi or otherwise, that you could say, “If you like X, you’ll like WHABH”?

Haha, thank you so much! When I was writing the book, a lot of the scenes played out in my head like cinematic sequences from a movie, so it would be an honor to see the story adapted for the screen!

The primary films that influenced the atmosphere and tension of We Have Always Been Here were Alien; I, Robot; Ex Machina; and Event Horizon, which are pretty much all science fiction murder mysteries or space horror films in some way. I think if people enjoy the book, especially the thriller aspects of it, they’ll definitely like those movies. (I mentioned I, Robot before, but the character of Sonny was a big influence in how I wrote Jimex, so that deserves another mention.)

I also thought a lot about how Stanley Kubrick filmed The Shining as a way to envision the disorientating and sometimes accordioning architecture of the Deucalion, so readers might enjoy the otherworldly, spatial impossibilities and claustrophobia there. I also think films like Arrival and Annihilation have ushered in a very cool age of sci-fi aesthetics that readers of We Have Always Been Here might enjoy.

Finally, I’m a big video game player, so some SFF games made their way into my writing of the book. For fans of We Have Always Been Here, I’d recommend checking out Detroit: Become Human, Dead Space, and Mass Effect.

5. What was the last great book you read? What are you reading now? What is next on your to-read list?

I’m a huge lover of fantasy, so everything I’ve read in the last year or so has been fantasy. I recently read two series that had a huge impact on me: the first would be the Daevabad trilogy by S.A. Chakraborty, starting with The City of Brass. The second would be the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen by K.S. Villoso, which starts with The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. Both series feature fascinating, complex, and flawed heroines (a little like Park, though I admit Nahri and Talyien are more badass); very lovely supporting casts; and spell-binding worldbuilding influenced by the magic of real-world cultures (Islamic and Filipino, respectively). I’m in love with both!

I am eagerly awaiting the next book in the Fire Sacraments series by Robert VS Redick, this latest offering being called Sidewinders. Robert is one of my favorite fantasy authors of all time, and Sidewinders releases on the same day that We Have Always Been Here does! So I’m very much looking forward to that!

6. Can you share what you’re working on next? Have you left the WHABH universe for good?

Right now, I’m in the earliest draft stages of my next novel, an apocalyptic fantasy I’m calling The Land of Salt and Bone. I haven’t decided yet whether it’s actually something like speculative fantasy, science fantasy, dieselpunk, or something else entirely… Basically, it’s Mad Max crossed with X-Men. There are assassins, gunfights, car chases across an apocalyptic and sometimes radioactive desert, the ghostly ruins of an advanced civilization, and mutant superpowers with very fun quirks and costs. The story mainly follows two assassins: one who accidentally picks up a pair of mutant twins in her bid to escape her past, and the other is a mercenary hired to kill the first. It’s very flashy and action-packed—different from the claustrophobia and darkness of We Have Always Been Here, but you might see a few subtle nods to characters from the Deucalion if you squint.

I always planned on We Have Always Been Here being a standalone story, but I know by now that you can never say never. As an undergrad, I wrote a novel set during the period of the Comeback—some hundred years before Park’s era in We Have Always Been Here—that I may revisit someday: that one’s about the plant armageddon and carbon pirates, both of which are mentioned in WHABH. So I might get back to that someday, or even visit other places in that universe, or even take a look at the Deucalion itself…

For now, though, I’m satisfied with how the pieces fell in Park’s story, and I think I hear the desert—both my home and The Land of Salt and Bone—calling my name.


Many thanks to Lena for her thoughtful, in-depth responses.

Order We Have Always Been Here on Bookshop.org

Review: Nophek Gloss

Title: Nophek Gloss (2020)
Author: Essa Hansen
Pages: 480
Series: The Graven #1 (Series Tracker)


Caiden is on a quest for vengeance after his family’s subjugation and slaughter. His anger and hatred are unrelenting. His desire to quench his thirst for vengeance fuels the main quest of this novel. Caiden’s journey to enact revenge is brutal but not without a beating heart. Whether blood-related or found-family, his love for his family drives everything.

Exciting, Inventive, and packed with imaginative ideas – Hansen’s debut space opera is the coolest novel I’ve read in some time. It’s hard science fiction at its finest.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

My thanks to Orbit for the review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Tales from the Loop

Tales from the LoopTitle: Tales from the Loop (2020; first published 2014)
Author: Simon Stålenhag
Pages: 128


This book showcases some truly spectacular science fiction artwork from Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag. The undeniably cool retrofuturistic aesthetic is juxtaposed against the seemingly mundane goings on of small town life in 1980s Sweden. The accompanying text is sometimes just window dressing to fill in the backstory behind the images, which stand on their own just fine.

If this sounds intriguing, I’d also highly recommend the Amazon show of the same name, which is loosely based on this source material. Each episode tells a self-contained story about a rural Ohio town and how The Loop that runs beneath it all fuels technological marvels that coexist amongst the townsfolk.

Review: Network Effect

Network EffectTitle: Network Effect (2020)
Author: Martha Wells
Pages: 350
Series: The Murderbot Diaries #5 (Series Tracker)


In its first full-length novel adventure, Murderbot is thrust right back into the fire on a rescue mission that immediately goes awry. Expanding from the usual novella length of previous installments, this was a bit all over the place for me and I can’t say that it benefits from the extra room. The story is similar to previous, tighter Murderbot tales, but the proceedings get so bogged down by technical mumbo jumbo that I had a difficult time following the action. 

Murderbot is at its best when the characters and their complicated relationships are at the forefront. In that respect, I really enjoyed the return of my favorite character, ART, Murderbot’s snarky sparring partner from a previous novella. This relationship, coupled with Murderbot’s dealings with some new (but familiar) allies makes for a compelling new wrinkle. Qualms aside, I’ll happily join up on Murderbot’s next mission, setting sail next year with a new novella.

★★★ out of 5

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Come the Revolution

CometheRevTitle: Come the Revolution (2020)
Author: Ian Tregillis
Magazine: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Mar/Apr 2020
Series: The Alchemy Wars #0 (Series Tracker)


I picked up this issue of F&SF specifically for Come The Revolution, a prequel novella to The Alchemy Wars, a brilliant alternate history series that was the perfect combination of concept and execution.

It was great to be back in this imaginative alt-history world and I really enjoyed seeing the backstory and humble beginnings of the mad Queen Mab, who eventually goes on to lead a robot “Clakker” army seeking vengeance on humanity. This story moves with alacrity and Tregillis is once again in fine form as he’s crafted an excellent primer for newcomers to the series or those thinking of embarking on a reread.

 

Review: Riot Baby

riot-baby-final-coverTitle: Riot Baby (2020)
Author: Tochi Onyebuchi
Pages: 176


This novella is visceral, staggering, and powerful. We follow Ella and Kev, siblings with extraordinary gifts, who are wearied by structural racism and the damage that this inflicts upon their family. 

Onyebuchi’s storytelling is really immersive and makes us feel the righteous anger and pain of each societal injustice as Ella and Kev are pushed beyond their breaking points. In the same way that Ella uses her godlike gift to pop in and out of space and time, the narrative jumps around and we’re shown windows into pivotal moments in the lives of our protagonists. And while the story presents an ever-worsening dystopian future, Onyebuchi leaves us with a glimmer of hope for a better future to come. Although tough to read at times, I found Riot Baby to be a satisfying read that packs quite a bit of fire into its limited page count.

★★★½ out of 5

 

Review: The Vanished Birds

Vanished BirdsTitle: The Vanished Birds (2020)
Author: Simon Jimenez
Pages: 390


This is an exceptional debut novel. Simon Jimenez is clearly a skilled storyteller and is an exciting new voice in science fiction. His prose is beautiful and in The Vanished Birds he seamlessly weaves multiple threads into a tightly-plotted tour de force.

The pace is slow, but measured, as each character is given ample time to establish themselves. As we bounce from vignette to vignette and from character to character the plot is always moving forward as the overarching story comes into focus. When the dust settles we’re left with a profound and deeply human story told on an epic scale across millennia. I loved it.

★★★★½ out of 5
SPECULATIVE SHELF STARRED BOOK

Review: Bonds of Brass

Bonds of BrassTitle: Bonds of Brass (April 7, 2020)
Author: Emily Skrutskie
Pages: 304
Series: The Bloodright Trilogy #1 (Series Tracker)


This was a fun ride. I’m sometimes overwhelmed by sprawling space operas, so this interplanetary story with a small but mighty cast of characters was a welcome relief.  I drew several parallels to Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series (apart from RR’s expansive cast) – propulsive pacing, an absorbing narrative, and a charming underdog looking to topple his subjugators. Ettian’s personal journey and evolution of loyalty is quite compelling. Author Emily Skrutskie unspools his story slowly and pulls on his allegiances from several different directions.

The tone of Skrutskie’s prose is casual yet sharp, which is always a nice combination and makes for a pleasant reading experience. I tend to gloss over extended space battle scenes, but her descriptions of space flight and aerial dogfights are vivid and engrossing.

Despite a lull in pacing and some rushed story beats in the back half of the novel, I enjoyed this to the end. I’ll be interested to see how the future books play out, especially with what unfolded in the final few pages.

★★★★ out of 5

My thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.