The best recent science fiction and fantasy – reviews roundup

Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer; Under the Blue by Oana Aristide; Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki; and All the Murmuring Bones by AG Slatter

Hummingbird Salamander
Photograph: PR

“If you received this, I am already gone. You’re on your own. But not alone.” These words are scrawled on an envelope containing a key, a number and an address, left at a coffee shop for the narrator of Jeff VanderMeer’s compelling Hummingbird Salamander (4th Estate, £16.99). The trail takes Jane to a storage unit where she finds a stuffed, extinct hummingbird with a cryptic note signed “Silvina”. Bored by her job, chafing at the predictable routines of home life, Jane seizes the challenge to investigate.

Silvina, she learns, was an eco-terrorist, at odds with her wealthy Argentinian family, and is reported to have died in a recent traffic accident. Could it have been murder? Clues from the hummingbird lead her to a suspicious taxidermist, and then to an odd, failed utopian commune, but nothing to suggest why a woman she did not know should have chosen her to solve this puzzle. By the time she realises she’s being followed, her interest has become an obsession that won’t let her go, even with her family in danger.

Set in the very near future in the US Pacific Northwest, this unusual detective story could be classed as an eco-thriller, as Jane’s investigations touch on the international criminal trade in wildlife as well as forcing her to confront secrets buried in her own past. Jane, who once trained as a wrestler, is a wonderful creation: strong, stubborn, damaged and perpetually angry, frequently unsympathetic, always believable. This quirky, compelling book is likely to gain an even wider audience for its author, without disappointing his many SF fans. The engine that drives it is speculation about the future not only of civilisation, but of all life on this planet. Metaphysical questions about our relationship to other forms of life, and our ability to change not only the world but ourselves, run throughout the book and come to the fore in an unsettling conclusion.

Under the Blue
Photograph: PR

Under the Blue (Serpent’s Tail, £14.99) by Oana Aristide unfurls a what-if apocalypse – which could be happening now, if Covid-19 had been a more universally lethal threat. In the midst of a pandemic, Harry, a solitary, middle-aged artist, abandons his London flat for an isolated cottage in Devon, and is joined there by Ash, a young woman for whom he has romantic feelings, and her less agreeable sister. For reasons the two are at first reluctant to reveal, they have decided they must get to Africa, and rather than be left behind, he agrees to join them. Interwoven with the story of this oddly matched trio on a road trip across an abruptly depopulated Europe during a long, hot summer is another, very different narrative set in a research station in the Arctic Circle. Through transcripts of sessions between scientists and an artificial intelligence known as Talos XI, we observe the creation of an AI made to predict disasters in the making, and offer the best solutions, or means of prevention. The discussions between human and AI are fascinating, revealing different ways of perceiving reality. The two stories come together to provide a surprising, satisfying conclusion to a beautifully written, emotionally gripping book.

Terminal Boredom
Photograph: PR

Izumi Suzuki was a Japanese actor, model and writer. Her turbulent marriage to saxophonist Kaoru Abe, who died of a drug overdose in 1978, followed by her own suicide in 1986, enshrined her as a sort of punk icon for disaffected Japanese youth. But her most lasting and important legacy is found in her science-fiction stories, now appearing for the first time in English in Terminal Boredom (Verso, various translators, £10.99). The seven stories here are not only still relevant but remarkably fresh, even if some tropes are familiar. “Women and Women” is Suzuki’s take on a female-only society in which men, having caused so much trouble and used up most of the world’s natural resources, are kept imprisoned underground, for reproductive use only. It stands out from the many English-language variations due to Suzuki’s jaundiced view of both genders. “Night Picnic”, about aliens trying to imitate humans, is even weirder and funnier than similar riffs by Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick. All these stories are brilliant, but with few exceptions they are bleak. Despite leavenings of the fantastic, and absurdist touches, the cumulative effect is one of alienation and despair.

All the Murmuring Bones
Photograph: PR

All the Murmuring Bones by AG Slatter (Titan, £8.99) returns to the gothic fairytale settings of her short stories (her 2014 collection The Bitterwood Bible and other Recountings won the World Fantasy award). It is a rich and satisfying novel about a young woman, born to be the last hope of a once powerful family, who resists an arranged marriage and won’t stop at murder or magic to survive in a world of abusive men and dangerous, supernatural creatures. Shifting between scenes of wonder and horror, a complex plot is gradually revealed, as well paced and gripping as a thriller.

Contributor

Lisa Tuttle

The GuardianTramp

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