“Annex” by Rich Larson, Orbit, 368 pages, $15.99
This first novel from Rich Larson, a young writer who has already earned a strong reputation for short fiction, borrows some features from the alien invasion tale, some from teen dystopias, some from zombie movies and even some from “Peter Pan.” If that sounds like something of a mashup, Larson manages to weave all this into an energetic, nonstop adventure that’s thoroughly his own, mostly because of an appealing cast of young protagonists, led by the street-smart Violet. As a trans teenager, Violet had to learn survival strategies long before the aliens arrive.
And when they do arrive, it’s in spectacular and ruthless fashion. A gigantic spacecraft blots out the entire sky above the city, and in short order, the adults get fitted out with neck clamps that turn them into virtual zombies, while kids are trapped in warehouses and implanted with parasites whose purpose only becomes apparent later. Violet runs with a group of free kids, calling themselves Lost Boys and hiding out in a local theater under the charismatic leadership of a boy named Wyatt.
The kids begin to organize a resistance, aided by some newly discovered almost magical powers and, eventually, by a wonderfully weird alien called Gloom, but they also face treachery among themselves. While “Annex” is a solid adventure by itself, it’s also the beginning of a trilogy, and most readers will be eager to see where volume two leads.
“All I Ever Dreamed” by Michael Blumlein, Valancourt, 506 pages, $34.99
Perhaps because of his career as a practicing physician, Michael Blumlein hasn’t been the most prolific of science-fiction writers, but he’s certainly among the most distinctive. This collection, which includes all his short fiction since 1993, begins with a strange mystery set against the backdrop of the California wildfires: The narrator discovers that the bones of his recently deceased father survive all efforts at cremation, leaving him with the puzzle of who or what his father really was. In what may be Blumlein’s most direct ecological parable, a wilderness hiker befriends an increasingly despairing Paul Bunyan.
But if there’s a recurring theme here, it could be summed up as “be careful what you wish for.” One character literally digs up the girl of his dreams, only to find his life complicated as she becomes a supermodel, while another finds himself radically changed by his elaborate scheme to wreak vengeance on the doctor he blames for his child’s death. A brilliant but disgraced architect tries to overcome loneliness with a made-to-order woman of his dreams, only to learn she’ll need a made-to-order companion herself as he remains buried in his work. A woman undergoes gene therapy in order to safely become pregnant, but with an ironic reversal worthy of O. Henry. Blumlein’s sophisticated, clinical understanding of biological themes is always balanced by his deep compassion toward his troubled characters.
“The Promise of Space and Other Stories” by James Patrick Kelly, Prime, 384 pages, $15.95
James Patrick Kelly has been an outstanding short-fiction writer for more than four decades as well as a distinguished anthologist and teacher, so it’s no surprise that his new collection demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of how science fiction and fantasy work. For example, the idea of uploading your whole personality into a computer matrix as a hedge against death isn’t new, but should it become a legal right (as in “Declaration”) or face religious opposition (as in “One Sister, Two Sisters, Three”)? Could it even lead to most humans disappearing, leaving the world to intelligent chimps (“”The Chimp of the Popes”)?
For that matter, can technology ever really replace a mind? In the most heartbreaking story, “The Promise of Space,” a wife tries to connect with her brain-damaged astronaut husband, whose own faulty memory is supplemented by thousands of hours of personal video, but who can’t emotionally understand the facts he calls up.
Kelly also has a clear grasp of other genres, but uses them in unexpected ways. “The Last Judgment” is set in a world from which all the men have been snatched away by aliens, but takes the form of a hard-boiled mystery. “The Rose Witch” takes on the tone and form of a fairy tale, complete with a life-changing moral choice the heroine faces. In nearly every story, Kelly offers a master class on how short fiction works.
Gary K. Wolfe is the editor of “American Science Fiction,” a Library of America anthology collecting nine classic works from the 1950s.