Short Wave is a popular science (as opposed to a scholarly science) podcast put out by NPR I listen to occasionally. It covers a wide range of topics in 10-15 minute segments that are light, often funny, and usually quite informative. Veering off their usual foray into the natural world, the hosts on December 22 recommended science fiction for the “beginner.” I’m hardly a beginner in science fiction, but I tend to read older stuff. I figured a sample of some newer fare for a change couldn’t hurt.
The three books the hosts recommended were praised by the others. Most had won or were nominated for Hugo or Nebula awards, so they couldn’t be lightweights.
The first was The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, a pseudonym for American author Sarah Monette.
Maia is a young man of mixed elvish (the main population) and goblin heritage, being brought up in obscurity by a brutal guardian. One day word comes that the emperor (his father) and all his half-brothers have been killed in a horrific airship disaster. He is now emperor and has to navigate learning to become a ruler of a vast sprawling empire. Whom can he trust? Who will do him harm? What about his half-sisters and the widows and children of his half-brothers he never knew?
I found this to be an engaging and enjoyable book. There is some magic and some science involved. According to Wikipedia, it received the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and was nominated for Nebula, Hugo, and World Best Fantasy Awards.
But it is not science fiction. It is fantasy. One could quibble about what kind of fantasy (high fantasy, grim-dark, and so on), but it is unquestionably fantasy with magic operating rather than science.
The second book they recommended is On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu.
This is a lyrical, heartbreaking story, told from the point of view of a child refugee, Firuzeh, from Afghanistan on her way to Australia. Atay (Dad) and Abay (Mom) tell her and her brother stories. More important are the stories Firuzah tells herself and others. These bring comfort and hope. Firuzeh is haunted by the ghost of a girl who drowned during a storm at sea. They swore to never leave each other.
The author abandons a lot of conventional punctuation in the book, but following conversations is not hard. The violence in Kabul is abstract; the reader doesn’t know exactly what happened, but it is enough to make the family flee. We know there was physical violence, and the family also received threats.
This was a great book, but it was difficult for me to read emotionally.
Again, this is not science fiction. If I had to pick a label, I’d call it magical realism.
The third (and final) book they recommended was a novella: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.
Two adversaries, Red for the Commandant and Blue for Garden, fight a time war “upbraid” and “downbraid,” slaughtering millions and destroying empires or sometimes whole planets as they see fit. One day, Red finds a letter telling her: “burn before reading.” Thus begins an exchange that can be encoded in the rings of trees, in bees, in the entrails of animals, or in any number of creative patterns. At first, the messages are taunting, then curious, then the two agents—both the best in their field—fall in love.
I enjoyed watching two main characters tease, taunt, and then get sappy all over each other.
According to Wikipedia, the book won the BSFA Award for Best Shorter Fiction, the Nebula Award for Best Novella of 2019, and the 2020 Hugo Award for Best Novella.
Because it is set in a world where time travel is apparently routine, this has a greater claim to being a science fiction work than either of the other two books. My quibble (of course, I have to quibble…) is that the time travel element is never explored. With a couple of exceptions, the two main characters might as well have been taking buses downtown or uptown. Primarily, this is a love story set in a time war. Having two main characters who are female and remorseless killers (ick…) doesn’t change that.
If I had to pick a favorite of the three books, it might be On Fragile Waves. But then again, I also liked The Goblin Emperor. Overall, I enjoyed these books and am glad to have read them. I just didn’t get much science fiction reading in.