IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND: Two of the novels reviewed here are brilliant examples of where sci-fi today is taking us; and there are two detective mysteries that similarly show the broad range of the genre
‘Mickey 7’ by Edward Ashton
The first big news about this sci-fi novel was how even before publication in early February, the book had already been optioned by Hollywood, with noted Korean director Bong Joon Ho (“Parasite”) attached to the project, and with Robert Pattinson cast to play the Mickey character. When the novel opens, we find Mickey 7 on some forlorn planet, being left in some crevasse by pilot Berto, and we’re told that what Mickey fears is being attacked by a creeper—a feared indigenous creature on that planet. Slowly, we learn that Mickey is in fact an Expendable, the one token member of the colony who’s sent in when it’s certain death, imminent fatal infection, or chances of survival are slim to none.
And he’s Mickey 7 precisely because he’s the seventh iteration of the Mickey that signed up as an expendable years ago. But the story’s premise is what happens when against all odds and reported as dead, a Mickey actually survives? Seven returns to base after being given up for dead in the crevasse, and finds that a Mickey 8 is already occupying his room. Mistrusted already for constantly reincarnating, the last thing the base needs is a case of multiples, so the two Mickey’s play an existential game of which Mickey should survive, and end up trying to find ways to fool the whole colony while a resolution can’t be arrived at. There’s suspense, a lot of deadpan humor, some crazy set-ups that stem from the extravagant premise. It’s a fun read, and while I’m presently apprehensive about a movie adaptation, I can see why they loved it.
‘Light from Uncommon Stars’ by Ryka Aoki
Here’s an interesting sci-fi-fantasy mash-up that talks of family, race equality and class, music, and about gender identity. If you pushed me against a wall and asked me to describe the book by referencing existing authors, I’d say it reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s “Good Omens,” if it was rechristened with a transgender hero/violin prodigy, and involved aliens living on earth in deep disguise, working in a family-owned LA donut shop. That would best describe the loopy premise, and what’s admirable to note is how Aoki manages to juggle all these balls without dropping a single one, and taking us on a wild ride, that manages to provide both social commentary, and vicarious sci-fi thrills.
Shizuka Satomi has made a pact with the devil. A renowned concert violinist at a younger age, she achieved greatness at a costly price, and now has to entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has accomplished transitioning six prodigies, and after the seventh, can resume her career. Katrina Nguyen, a transgender runaway, is who Shizuka eyes to be the seventh soul. But she doesn’t reckon on developing true feelings towards Katrina, and wanting to protect her. Plus Shizuka is smitten by Lan Tran, who runs a donut shop but is a retired starship captain and mother of four, in fact. The extended Tran family runs the donut shop while preparing their Stargate craft to escape detection by an alien civilization. A lot of craziness abounds and it all makes reading fun.
‘The Shadows of Men’ by Abir Mukherjee
This is the fifth novel that features the Wyndham and Banerjee tandem of police officers. Set in the 1920’s, when Raj India still existed, and the nation was under British rule, these novels have always been interesting because of the dynamics between the two. While Sam Wyndham is British, he’s always proven to be honorable and treats Surendranath Banerjee with a surprising amount of respect, if not outright equality. And there’s the moral complexity of Banerjee, who wants to be a good police officer while aware that he’s working with the force that’s keeping his people subjugated. Then you add the swirling politics of the day, as this was when Mahatma Gandhi was beginning his crusade of independence, but through moderation and peaceful means.
The case in this fifth outing stems from a Hindu theologian in Calcutta found murdered in his home, with a visiting Muslim politician from Bombay in the same vicinity. Flames are fanned—literally and metaphorically—by this coincidence, and it’s unfortunate that Surendranath was nearby and got embroiled in the mess. Suddenly, this Indian police officer is a suspect in the murder, and it’s all Sam can do to keep the British military presence from throwing the book at his friend. Traveling from Calcutta to Bombay, this becomes an expansive study of not just the deep-rooted rift between Hindus and Muslims, but how even from within either camp, there are divisions and nuances that one has to understand to appreciate why things are as they are. Beautifully plotted, you will like how their own brand of justice is fashioned.
‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ by Simon Kernick
Undercover cop Chris Sketty became something of a media hero 15 years ago, when it seemed he foiled what could have been one of the worst terrorist attacks in London. With a number of deaths, including several of the gang members shot down by Sketty himself, it’s often mentioned how the casualties could have been far more if not for the timely intervention of Sketty and his cohorts. When the novel opens, we see Sketty being interviewed by a man on a wheelchair, widower of one of the victims during the said fateful shooting. What becomes immediately apparent is that this Mr. Teller is far from an adoring fan of Sketty. In fact, if not the mastermind, Teller believes Sketty is, at the very least, an outrageous liar.
The novel then takes us back to the months preceding the attack and how Sketty was seconded by a clandestine undercover group to infiltrate the police force, and hopefully unmask a senior officer suspected of strong right-wing tendencies and who was recruiting like-minded persons in the force to join their pocket of armed resistance to the system—led by a shadowy figure who seemed to be operating with impunity, and with several influential people under his thumb. The hope was that Sketty would help expose this crime lord. It’s a tense cat and mouse game that runs through this novel, and what makes it exciting is that whether 15 years ago, or in the present, there’s a constant switching of who exactly is the cat and who is the mouse. Just how elusive truth can be, even when you have all the facts, is one of the themes of this thriller.