Nick Harkaway, Barbara Gowdy, Julia Elliott, Jeff VanderMeer, Dexter Palmer, Tom Sweterlitsch

Recent SF: Hidden Gems from Mainstream Publishers

There are tons of science fiction and fantasy publishers these days. From Tor to Orbit, Del Rey to Night Shade Books, EOS, ACE, Solaris, etc, chances are you’re familiar with at least a few of these. Some of the SF publishers you’re familiar with are independent, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: Most of them are owned by just five publishing houses (the big five).

As readers, we become familiar with the names of these publishers and trust them as marks of quality or as indicators that we might like a new book. I have particularly loved recent titles from Orbit and Tor, whose books have deservedly dominated the Hugo, Nebula and Locus award nominations and winners in the last few years. The flip side of this affinity for the same few publishers is that a lot of great SF novels published by non SF imprints can go under noticed by the SF community.

There have been several terrific recent science fiction and fantasy novels from mainstream literary imprints and independent publishers that I think deserve much more attention than they received. I’ve put this list together to remind readers that there is quality SF all over the place. Most of the books in this list are still from the big five, but I’ve included some from smaller, independent publishers as well. They are all wonderfully well rounded stories, told through beautiful language. Hopefully you’ll find something you like, or maybe even a new favorite. Enjoy!

Version Control, Dexter PalmerVersion Control, by Dexter Palmer (2016, Pantheon/Vintage)

Publisher Synopsis:

Although Rebecca Wright has pieced her life back together after a major tragedy, she can’t shake a sense that the world around her feels off-kilter. Meanwhile, her husband’s dedication to his invention, “the causality violation device” (which he would greatly prefer you not call a time machine) has effectively stalled his career—but he may be closer to success than either of them can possibly imagine. Emotionally powerful and wickedly intelligent, Version Control is a stunningly prescient novel about the effects of science and technology on our lives, our friendships, and our sense of self that will alter the way you see the future—and the present.

Why it’s awesome:
Dexter PalmerThis was one of my favorite reads from the last few years. It came out of nowhere and knocked me on my ass in 2016. It’s a slow burn novel with one of the most emotionally fulfilling conclusions that I have ever read. It’s a highly character driven, yet cerebral examination of causality, physics, and concepts like parallel worlds and time travel. But it never loses it’s core focus: humanity, and human relationships.

It’s set in a near near-future, and does a fantastic job of telling a beautiful story about the far reaching effects that advances in technology might bring to our lives, particularly the collision of the Maker/DIY community and advanced self driving vehicles.

Version Control is a masterpiece of literature, SF or otherwise.

Void Star, by Zachary MasonVoid Star, by Zachary Mason (2017, FSG)

Publisher Synopsis:

Not far in the future the seas have risen and the central latitudes are emptying, but it’s still a good time to be rich in San Francisco, where weapons drones patrol the skies to keep out the multitudinous poor. Irina isn’t rich, not quite, but she does have an artificial memory that gives her perfect recall and lets her act as a medium between her various employers and their AIs, which are complex to the point of opacity. It’s a good gig, paying enough for the annual visits to the Mayo Clinic that keep her from aging.
Kern has no such access; he’s one of the many refugees in the sprawling drone-built favelas on the city’s periphery, where he lives like a monk, training relentlessly in martial arts, scraping by as a thief and an enforcer. Thales is from a different world entirely―the mathematically inclined scion of a Brazilian political clan, he’s fled to L.A. after the attack that left him crippled and his father dead.
A ragged stranger accosts Thales and demands to know how much he can remember. Kern flees for his life after robbing the wrong mark. Irina finds a secret in the reflection of a laptop’s screen in her employer’s eyeglasses. None are safe as they’re pushed together by subtle forces that stay just out of sight.

Why it’s awesome:
Zachary MasonIt not only has that famous sense of wonder that only SF can do so well, but also elegant prose evidencing an author well acquainted with the great works of literary fiction, solid worldbuilding, an engaging story, and well developed characters that feel like they’ve genuinely lived their lives. It’s a novel of ideas, a hugely ambitious narrative, and a character novel all rolled into one. If elements of Neuromancer and The Diamond Age merged with an epic mythology poem and in the process became more than the sum of their parts, you would have Void Star. I’d call it post-cyberpunk, minus the noir element. There is a mystery present, but no tropey, down on his luck detective piecing it all together while chewing the scenery.

Mason’s prose has an inherent beauty to it, and is a joy to read. It is poetically descriptive in a clever, nebulous way. He describes only just enough to jump-start your imagination, leaving the hard-edged details for the reader to incorporate into the world themselves. You meet the novel halfway. It makes it highly engaging. It’s an approach that can backfire if handled by a less steady hand, but it’s wonderfully executed here. To me it’s a little reminiscent of Jeff VanderMeer’s prose.

Read the full Heradas review of Void Star

Little Sister, by Barbara GowdyLittle Sister, by Barbara Gowdy (2017, Tin House)

Publisher Synopsis:

Thunderstorms are rolling across the summer sky. Every time one breaks, Rose Bowan loses consciousness and has vivid, realistic dreams about being in another woman’s body.
Is Rose merely dreaming? Or is she, in fact, inhabiting a stranger? Disturbed yet entranced, she sets out to discover what is happening to her, leaving the cocoon of her family’s small repertory cinema for the larger, upended world of someone wildly different from herself. Meanwhile her mother is in the early stages of dementia, and has begun to speak for the first time in decades about another haunting presence: Rose’s younger sister.
In Little Sister, one woman fights to help someone she has never met, and to come to terms with a death for which she always felt responsible. With the elegant prose and groundbreaking imagination that have earned her international acclaim, Barbara Gowdy explores the astonishing power of empathy, the question of where we end and others begin, and the fierce bonds of motherhood and sisterhood.

Why it’s awesome:
Barbara Gowdy Little Sister has a setup that hooked me in the first handful of pages. There is a well crafted, subtle symmetry at play in this novel. The story is teeming with thematic intrigue, and these themes mirror each other in creative ways as the story progresses. You could describe it as a feedback loop of sorts; the matching elements bouncing off each other and informing different areas of the story, creating a prism that resolves as it all comes together. It’s masterfully done. I’d call it a summer literary thriller with a touch of magical realism, and a lot of substance.

The prose is sober and clear; the story utterly captivating, and the characters well developed. There is a general sense of unease, making it suspenseful in the same way a good horror movie can be, without ever fully submerging into the horrific. For me, some of the main themes in Little Sister are reminiscent of the motifs of duality present in the best Christopher Priest novels, and Gowdy writes dialogue like a more reasonable DeLillo in his prime.

Read the full Heradas review of Little Sister

Gnomon, Nick HarkawayGnomon, by Nick Harkaway (2018, Knopf/Vintage)

Publisher Synopsis:

In the world of Gnomon, citizens are constantly observed and democracy has reached a pinnacle of ‘transparency.’ Every action is seen, every word is recorded, and the System has access to its citizens’ thoughts and memories–all in the name of providing the safest society in history.
When suspected dissident Diana Hunter dies in government custody, it marks the first time a citizen has been killed during an interrogation. The System doesn’t make mistakes, but something isn’t right about the circumstances surrounding Hunter’s death. Mielikki Neith, a trusted state inspector and a true believer in the System, is assigned to find out what went wrong. Immersing herself in neural recordings of the interrogation, what she finds isn’t Hunter but rather a panorama of characters within Hunter’s psyche: a lovelorn financier in Athens who has a mystical experience with a shark; a brilliant alchemist in ancient Carthage confronting the unexpected outcome of her invention; an expat Ethiopian painter in London designing a controversial new video game, and a sociopathic disembodied intelligence from the distant future.
Embedded in the memories of these impossible lives lies a code which Neith must decipher to find out what Hunter is hiding. In the static between these stories, Neith begins to catch glimpses of the real Diana Hunter–and, alarmingly, of herself. The staggering consequences of what she finds will reverberate throughout the world.
A dazzling, panoramic achievement, and Nick Harkaway’s most brilliant work to date, Gnomon is peerless and profound, captivating and irreverent, as it pierces through strata of reality and consciousness, and illuminates how to set a mind free. It is a truly accomplished novel from a mind possessing a matchless wit infused with a deep humanity.

Why it’s awesome:
Nick HarkawayGnomon is simultaneously many different things: A cautionary tale about our modern moment’s convergence of technology, surveillance, and human hubris. A matryoshkian novel, as narratively complex as it is straightforward and readable, that is itself ultimately all about storytelling, narrative, and books. A satisfyingly self-aware postmodern book that wants access to your mind as a tool to self-propagate. A beautifully designed physical book (Chip Kidd doesn’t mess around). A book that teaches you how to read it as you read it.

Gnomon is also staggeringly vast in its scope and ambition: It’s about math, immigration, surveillance, sharks, encryption, ancient Rome, video games, economics, hive minds, the near future, the far future, liberty and security, mirrors and parallels, disconnection, right angles, mythology, time travel, social manipulation, the human connectome, steganography, racism, intertextuality, detective novels, religion, castouts, manipulation, our ever changing definition of reality, interrogation, torture, and so many, many other things.

If you like books by Borges, Neal Stephenson, Cherise Wolas, David Mitchell, David Foster Wallace or Ted Chiang, this is one I think you will immensely enjoy.

Borne, by Jeff VanderMeerBorne, by Jeff VanderMeer (2016, MCD)

Publisher Synopsis:

In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company―a biotech firm now derelict―and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.
One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump―plant or animal?―but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts―and definitely against Wick’s wishes―Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford.
“He was born, but I had borne him.”
But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same.

Why it’s awesome:
Jeff VanderMeerJeff VanderMeer is a literary author, writing almost exclusively speculative fiction. He’s at the center of that illusive Venn diagram containing Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Literary Fiction, and belongs in whatever section of your bookshelf Octavia Butler, Adam Johnson, Ursula Le Guin, Dexter Palmer and Gene Wolfe inhabit.

All of the VanderMeer story staples are here in full force: Ruinous ecology, strange bioluminescent life, forgotten memories, a misplaced sense of self-identity, life that might not be human, animals that (maybe) used to be human, a hint of something much larger happening on the periphery, a creepy company meddling in things they shouldn’t, and a perfect mix of mystery and resolution in the story. All told through beautiful prose that itself lends an eerie literary landscape for the rich characters to inhabit.

The most obvious comparison here is VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, being his most recent work. I can guarantee that if you enjoyed those novels, you’re very much going to enjoy Borne. Maybe even more so. I could even make a case that it is entirely possible, and doesn’t take all that much head canon, to connect Borne to the Southern Reach novels.

Read the full Heradas review of Borne

Mort(e), Robert RepinoMort(e), by Robert Repino (2015, SOHO)

Publisher Synopsis:

The “war with no name” has begun, with human extinction as its goal. The instigator of this war is the Colony, a race of intelligent ants who, for thousands of years, have been silently building an army that would forever eradicate the destructive, oppressive humans. Under the Colony’s watchful eye, this utopia will be free of the humans’ penchant for violence, exploitation and religious superstition. As a final step in the war effort, the Colony uses its strange technology to transform the surface animals into high-functioning two-legged beings who rise up to kill their masters.
Former housecat turned war hero, Mort(e) is famous for taking on the most dangerous missions and fighting the dreaded human bio-weapon EMSAH. But the true motivation behind his recklessness is his ongoing search for a pre-transformation friend—a dog named Sheba. When he receives a mysterious message from the dwindling human resistance claiming Sheba is alive, he begins a journey that will take him from the remaining human strongholds to the heart of the Colony, where he will discover the source of EMSAH and the ultimate fate of all of earth’s creatures.

Why it’s awesome:
Robert RepinoA terrific, wholly original story. Brutal, straightforward and unflinching yet really fun at the same time. It had elements of Planet of the Apes and the better works of Heinlein, but with a lot more heart.

Mort(e) did that thing that only SF can do so well. It told a story about humanity and all the things that we get wrong, transplanted into a completely alien, unfamiliar point of view, so as not too come across as obviously preachy. Repino removed the “serial numbers” from a great story about humanity, and turned in a thrilling science fiction tale.

The Gone World, Tom SweterlitschThe Gone World, by Tom Sweterlitsch (2018, Putnam)

Publisher Synopsis:

Inception meets True Detective in this science fiction thriller of spellbinding tension and staggering scope that follows a special agent into a savage murder case with grave implications for the fate of mankind…
Shannon Moss is part of a clandestine division within the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. In western Pennsylvania, 1997, she is assigned to solve the murder of a Navy SEAL’s family—and to locate his vanished teenage daughter. Though she can’t share the information with conventional law enforcement, Moss discovers that the missing SEAL was an astronaut aboard the spaceship U.S.S. Libra—a ship assumed lost to the currents of Deep Time. Moss knows first-hand the mental trauma of time-travel and believes the SEAL’s experience with the future has triggered this violence.
Determined to find the missing girl and driven by a troubling connection from her own past, Moss travels ahead in time to explore possible versions of the future, seeking evidence to crack the present-day case. To her horror, the future reveals that it’s not only the fate of a family that hinges on her work, for what she witnesses rising over time’s horizon and hurtling toward the present is the Terminus: the terrifying and cataclysmic end of humanity itself.
Luminous and unsettling, The Gone World bristles with world-shattering ideas yet remains at its heart an intensely human story.

Why it’s awesome:
Tom SweterlitschThis is a disturbing and unique take on time travel and alternate worlds that’s unlike anything I’ve read. Think the horrific existential dread of Lovecraft or Robert Chambers, that so obviously inspired the first season of True Detective, filtered through Arthur C. Clarke’s grand ideas, all told as an incredibly tight mainstream suspense thriller with a terrific protagonist. Throw in a dash of Minority Report, and a pinch of the complexity of Primer and you’ve got a good idea what you’re getting yourself into. Mysteries in mysteries in mysteries, and they all resolve pretty well.

Usually I’ve found Science fiction suspense thrillers to be a little ham fisted. There’s often a solid idea but the execution is clumsy, or the SF aspects are merely genre tropes. Sometimes the mystery is a little too obvious, or the characters are as translucent as the paper in a cheap paperback. Worst of all is when the story gets bogged down by the science and it becomes more of a textbook than a novel. This isn’t to say that I’m not a fan of “hard” sci-fi, but story and character need to come first. The Gone World doesn’t succumb to any of these traps. It works surprisingly well as both science fiction and a modern mainstream suspense thriller. The SF aspects help the story to avoid the tropes of suspense thrillers and vice versa, each genre serving to make up for the possible shortcomings of the other.

Read the full Heradas review of The Gone World

The New and Improved Romie FutchThe New and Improved Romie Futch, by Julia Elliott (2015, Tin House)

Publisher Synopsis:

A debut novel that is part dystopian satire, part Southern Gothic tall tale: a disturbing yet hilarious romp through a surreal New South where newfangled medical technologies change the structure of the human brain and genetically modified feral animals ravage the blighted landscape.
Down on his luck and still pining for his ex-wife, South Carolina taxidermist Romie Futch spends his evenings drunkenly surfing the Internet before passing out on his couch. In a last-ditch attempt to pay his mortgage, he replies to an ad and becomes a research subject in an experiment conducted by the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience in Atlanta, Georgia. After “scientists” download hifalutin humanities disciplines into their brains, Romie and his fellow guinea pigs start debating the works of Foucault and hashing out the intricacies of postmodern subjectivity. The enhanced taxidermist, who once aspired to be an artist, returns to his hometown ready to revolutionize his work and revive his failed marriage. As Romie tracks down specimens for his elaborate animatronic taxidermy dioramas, he develops an Ahab-caliber obsession with bagging “Hogzilla,” a thousand-pound feral hog that has been terrorizing Hampton County. Cruising hog-hunting websites, he learns that this lab-spawned monster possesses peculiar traits. Pulled into an absurd and murky underworld of biotech operatives, FDA agents, and environmental activists, Romie becomes entangled in the enigma of Hogzilla’s origins.
Exploring the interplay between nature and culture, biology and technology, reality and art, The New and Improved Romie Futch probes the mysteries of memory and consciousness, offering a darkly comic yet heartfelt take on the contemporary human predicament.

Why it’s awesome:

Julia ElliottA glorious postmodern tale of a mid-south middle-aged burnout divorcee taxidermist who hits rock bottom and answers a classified ad to become a guinea pig for some experimental neurological enhancements. It’s incredibly good writing, while being effortlessly engaging, humorous, poignant and actually kind of endearing too.

Julia Elliot’s prose evolves as the novel builds, expertly juxtaposing the realities and habits of uneducated southern life with the transformative power, and self reflection that accompanies an acquisition of knowledge. She crafts characters that drip with such potent realism, I swear these are actual people – some of whom I absolutely know from the mid-size mid-south town I currently reside in.

Tin House is one of my favorite smaller independent publishers in the business today. In addition to publishing ten or so terrific books each year, they also run the Tin House literary magazine, which recently published a new all time favorite story by Julia Elliott in their Candy issue.

Read the full Heradas review of The New and Improved Romie Futch