SF spotlight: mini reviews

Nearly half my 2022 reading and two thirds of my review backlog were SF titles – time for some lightning reviews to capture my impressions before they fade away, starting with 3 SFnal thrillers: Plan For Chaos by John Wyndham, The Nox by Joe White & Catriona Ward and Pollen From A Future Harvest by Derek Künsken.

Pollen From A Future Harvest – Derek Künsken

Book cover: Pollen From A Future Harvest - Derek Künsken

Derek Künsken’s contribution to the first round of Solaris Satellites is a far future murder mystery set in the Quantum Evolution universe. When an auditor is tasked to investigate a shift in the local ecosystem, she finds evidence suggesting her husband’s recent death was far from accidental. This intimate, poetic novella focuses on conflicts of grief and loyalty on a secret military base.

The ingredients are intriguing: a time gate on a remote moon allows local plant life to communicate with their past and future selves (after a fashion) as their pollen can pass through it. The Sixth Expeditionary Force of the Sub-Saharan Union are determined to figure out a way to make use of the gate to support their bid for independence. Threatened by spies and by the misguided manoeuvring of senior staff to seize command, the Force faces an uncertain future – the more so when the pollen stops streaming from the future, suggesting the moon will be desolate in ten years time.

This is my first brush with Künsken’s work and I can see why he is a hit with many mutuals: Pollen From A Future Harvest shows a strong command of character and world-building. There’s a lot to unpack in this very short novella. I was intrigued by the arranged marriage triads and weird science, and engaged by Chesenai’s arc from grieving widow to political agent. However, I was frustrated by its brevity (it is only 72 pages long; nearly half the book was a preview of The House of Styx, which frankly left me feeling a little ripped off) and I struggled with the scientific infodumps – I was more interested in the sociology and politics. In the end, I’m not tempted to explore the Quantum universe any further, although I’d recommend this to those who enjoy hard SF.

Plan For Chaos – John Wyndham

John Wyndham’s first novel was shelved in favour of completing Day Of The Triffids. Plan For Chaos was reconstructed after his death from two final drafts and is best approached as a curiosity by Wyndham completists as it is just as much of a mess as that sounds.

Book cover: Plan for Chaos

Early Wyndham liked to jump in media res, and while the opening scene here is far less iconic than Triffids, it’s an efficient set-up: a photographer is fired by his New York employer for selling fake photos of dead girls to a foreign newspaper. But Johnny has done no such thing – and is unsettled by the resemblance of the girls to his fiancée Freda. When Johnny is mistaken for another man and Freda gets attacked, he begins investigating in earnest and uncovers a baroque Aryan conspiracy headed up by a crafty matriarch.

Chaos is an odd blend of signature Wyndham tropes – open-minded, clever female characters, dogged protagonists dragged in their wake, dry commentary on societal norms and post-war political threats – undermined by a character as bland as he is slow-witted. I was repeatedly frustrated by Johnny’s inability to spot the glaringly obvious (he isn’t a very good investigator), if initially amused by his patriarchal panic in response to the cloning program. However, even clever Freda is convinced that women get fractious when they can’t have babies and the book ends on Johnny’s conviction that undoing the nuclear family will unravel humanity (ironic, given Wyndham’s own circumstances) – I preferred Freda’s initial observation:

If men weren’t so shocked by the processes of creation that they must sentimentalize them: and if they could manage to be a little more shocked over the processes of destruction, the world might be a more sensible and comfortable place to live

A pacy conspiracy thriller trails into an undercover political drama on a Nazi base, with a subplot of stopping the extremists from dropping biological weapons (most of the fun in this read is spotting the seeds of other Wyndham works). I only finished Plan For Chaos because the audiobook was in the Audible Plus library and I had a long drive over Christmas (this didn’t improve my reading experience as the narration was incredibly slow and full of weird pauses, possibly in a misplaced attempt to mirror Wyndham’s overused ellipses. 1.5x speed almost sounded normal). Not recommended unless – like me – you are a Wyndham completist.

The Nox – Joe White & Catriona Ward

Audiobook cover: The Nox - Joe White & Catriona Ward

In the near future, humanity is teetering on the brink in the wake of overpopulation and climate change disasters. The so-called last generation are desperate to find solutions; but a sighting of supposedly extinct polar bears in the Arctic offers a slim ray of hope for a small team of researchers.

This atmospheric audio drama kept me company on the long drive north after Christmas. I can’t resist Arctic thrillers – the twin threats of the environment and whatever else the authors throw at their characters – so The Nox was the perfect pick-me-up after the literary WTF of Our Wives Under The Sea. An SFnal thriller by Joe White and Catriona Ward, The Nox benefits from a glossy full cast production including Lashana Lynch and Michiel Huisman and immersive sound design that brings the environment to life.

This is one of those tales that plays fast and loose with reality: it opens with a child and their mother are being chased by a bear – or rather, the father pretending to be a bear – and unfolds in a similar manner, seeding reasons to mistrust what you hear and doubt the characters’ judgement. The eternal dark of the Arctic confuses our perception of time, we’re told up front; the high tech antidotes require a great deal of trust in your medic – here a worryingly perky company rep. It has all the ingredients for speculative horror, and it leans in hard.

I thoroughly enjoyed the ambiguous result, which was diverting and entertaining in equal measure. I’m still not entirely sure what happened aboard The Nox because I still don’t know how much of what I heard I can trust – but I know why it happened and who was responsible, so it gave me enough closure to feel thoroughly satisfied. As for the polar bears? I couldn’t possibly say. Recommended if you have an Audible subscription and are a looking for a quick listen.

I’ll be back with a space opera round-up on Sunday.