The charged political climate has sparked renewed interest in dystopias like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “1984.” Three new science fiction books capture our taste for storylines involving societal or environmental collapse in a future that has begun to feel perhaps not so distant.
In “The Moon and Other” (Saga) John Kessel has laid out his vision in an irresistibly entertaining way. Set in the 22nd century, the novel follows a man and a woman in two opposing cities on the moon. In the Society of Cousins, men give up the right to vote in exchange for an elevated and pampered status where they show off their skills as artists, athletes and lovers. The Society’s rival, Persepolis, is a city with patriarchal power structures more reflective of our own. The Society is deemed a threat by all the patriarchal cities around it, and a committee is created to investigate the status of men – and potentially reveal secret weaponry created by a female scientist. Don’t let the lofty premise dissuade you. “The Moon and the Other” is funny, sexy and charming, and its characters are nuanced and relatable. Kessel has written a book about ideologies taken to extremes, but also about how a person of character – a hero – is created.
Antonia Honeywell’s debut novel, “The Ship” (Orbit), takes place in a frightening vision of the near future: Bangladesh is underwater, food resources are scarce and a totalitarian government can barely hold society upright as people struggle to survive. Sixteen-year-old Lalla has two loving parents who have provided for her and shielded her from the worst of Earth’s decline. Yet she misses things she’s never had, like school or fresh fruit. When her father completes his ultimate plan – to shelter 500 carefully selected people on a massive ship with every luxury they could ever need – Lalla is forced to face new uncertainties. Desperate to understand where the ship is going, struggling to feel safe and enjoy life even when she knows others are suffering, Lalla slowly unravels. Honeywell’s eloquent tale raises thought-provoking questions about the difficult task of growing up, no matter the time or place: What do you do when the people you trust will no longer listen to you? What do you do when they’re wrong?
“Proof of Concept” (Tor), by Gwyneth Jones features another portrayal of an overcrowded, crumbling Earth. Here there’s a seemingly hopeful twist, as scientists are trying to find a way to get people off the planet to a habitable world. One such researcher is Kir, who works out of an underground bunker with a group of other scientists. Kir is brought on board because her brain is the home of Altair, a quantum artificial intelligence implanted in her when she was a child. When people start dying, Kir teams up with Altair to investigate what the other scientists are truly up to in their shared bunker. That mystery is central to the plot, but the fun is in all the details packed into Jones’ novella. Through Kir, we learn how gender and sex have changed, how politics shapes scientific research and what happens to children abandoned in some of Earth’s decaying wastelands. Most important, Jones, an Arthur C. Clarke winner, offers a delicious portrayal of what it feels like when that nagging voice in your head telling you something is wrong is in fact your only ally.
Mason reviews science fiction and fantasy every month for The Washington Post. You can see all the books she’s reading on Goodreads.