June 20, 2024


Science It Works

Five Recent Books for Fans of Old-Fashioned SF Adventure

I like fantasy well enough, but what warms is science fiction. Preferably with rockets. Brobdinagian space battles (or at least the potential for same) are also a plus.

Here are a few recent novels that scratch that old-fashioned itch.


In the Black by Patrick S. Tomlinson (2020)

The Intersection War ended in stalemate and negotiated peace. In the seventy-five years since, neither humans nor alien Xre have seen fit to challenge that peace. Still, trust but verify (as the proverb goes): the Combined Corporate Defense Fleet exists to monitor any Xre feints toward human-controlled systems. The good ship CCDF Ansari has been assigned to the 82 Eridani system, where it watches over a net of sensor units monitoring for alien incursion.

Sensor drones go offline and Ansari double-checks the system; it finds a Xre vessel lurking just outside the formal border between human territory and interstellar space. The Xre are targeting Ansari’s remotes. Are they trying to draw the human vessel into a game of cat and mouse in the depths of space? There doesn’t seem to be any good reason to do this, but there it is. The game is unlikely to play out to Ansari’s benefit.



Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott (2020)

Princess Sun believes that it was her unparalleled command skills that allowed her to rout the Phene enemy. Her mother, Queen-Marshal Eirene, isn’t impressed; Sun has merely demonstrated a basic ability to follow orders. Too bad, because Sun is desperate for official recognition of her worth. Sun’s father is a Gatoi, a nomad of deep space and a barbarian in the eyes of Eirene’s people. Sun is half-Gatoi, which makes her an unpopular choice as official heir to the throne.

Sun has rivals, who are not content to wait for the Queen-Marshal to replace Sun as heir. It would be more efficient to simply murder Sun. The cunning plan fails. Time for plan B: frame Sun for treason.



Velocity Weapon by Megan E. O’Keefe (2019)

Casimir gates link all the settled systems of the Milky Way; the polity of Prime controls the gates. The breakaway planet Icarion controls…part of the Cronus system. Onlookers might be forgiven for thinking that the main reason the conflict has lasted as long as it has is that Prime is large, ponderous, and slow. It isn’t annoyed enough to swat the obstreperous planet. Yet the struggle isn’t completely one-sided. Icarion has annihilated the Prime forces stationed at Dralee.

Prime loyalist Sergeant Sandra Greeve survived the debacle at Dralee. Barely. That’s the end of the good news. She recovers consciousness on Icarion’s The Light of Berossus. She’s missing her clothes and her leg. The crew of the Berossus seems to be missing as well and (if the ship’s AIs can be trusted) so is the entire population of the Cronus system. Icarion may have unleashed something that destroyed both sides.

No Prime rescue fleet has arrived to save Greeve. She and her commandeered ship will have to save themselves.



Fortuna by Kristyn Merbeth (2019)

Scarcely had the fleet of generation ships fled from Earth to the Nova Vita system than the settlers, struggling to deal with hostile alien worlds, turned on each other. None of Nova Vita’s worlds are self-sufficient, but this necessary interdependence does not prevent each world from viewing the others with determined suspicion. This combination of dependence and paranoia requires middlemen who are willing to accept big risks for unpredictable profits.

This is where the Fortuna and the Kaiser family come in. Each of Mama Kaiser’s children was born on a different world, enough to facilitate the vagabond traders’ precarious occupation. In the long run, Fortuna will no doubt be outcompeted by robot traders. Not that this matters, because in the short run one world is determined to start an interplanetary war. The Fortuna will be minor collateral damage.



Atlas Alone by Emma Newman (2019)

Pathfinder 2 has a twenty-year voyage ahead of it. Behind it lies an Earth no longer capable of sustaining advanced civilization.

Earth did not fall so much as it was pushed. Earth’s assassins are on board the Pathfinder and Dee is determined to bring them to justice—a necessarily vigilante endeavor, as the killers are protected by rank and power. Dee believes she can kill them all before her close friend Carl, who is as close to a cop as the starship can provide, figures out what’s going on. Perhaps she is correct… but Carl is very, very good at his job.

Originally published in July 2020.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is currently a finalist for the 2020 Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.