May 27, 2024


Science It Works

Legends Remade: New Science Fiction and Fantasy

Marissa Levien’s THE WORLD GIVES WAY (Redhook, 402 pp., $28) is a staggering marvel, an action-packed cat-and-mouse chase on a doomed generation ship the size of Switzerland. Myrra Dal is a contract worker, one of thousands of people serving out indentures signed by their great-grandparents in exchange for passage off a dying Earth. To her, and to most of the other citizens descended from those first passengers, the ship is the world: It has a sky, cities, weather, climates, a desert and a sea. It also has a crack in its hull — widening, irreparable and kept secret by its wealthiest families — and 50 years remaining in its 200-year voyage.

A different novel would have concerned itself with a tense race to fix the ship and save humanity, or framed a series of impossible choices about who gets to live or die. But “The World Gives Way” is neither Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” nor an episode of “Doctor Who,” and Levien’s breathtaking tale is instead about grace, love and what matters at the end of all things. The book has three points of view: Myrra, on the run after her employers die by suicide, but still caring for their infant daughter; Tobias, the rookie detective pursuing her; and an omniscient voice calmly explaining how the ship’s different biomes will be obliterated as the world gives way. The result is overwhelming, as if the book itself is disintegrating as you read it; hammering throughout like a heartbeat is the question of whether anyone will escape before the end.

Nghi Vo’s THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL (, 262 pp., $26.99) is a retelling of “The Great Gatsby” from the point of view of Jordan Baker, in a Jazz Age subtly interwoven with magic and demons. While the plot follows Fitzgerald’s original, there are some key transformations. Baker is Vietnamese, adopted (or abducted) by a wealthy white missionary who died shortly after bringing her to Louisville, and possesses a kind of illusory magic: She can create simulacra of living things by cutting out their silhouettes in paper. Living in precarious affluence, surrounded by money to which she has no claim, Baker nurses a pragmatic cynicism that stands as a mesmerizing inversion of Nick Carraway’s narration. Where Nick observed Jay Gatsby, Jordan observes Daisy Buchanan, illuminating her personality in ways that intersect with and expand Fitzgerald’s portrayal.

“The Chosen and the Beautiful” deserves to be read as closely as the book that inspired it. Vo’s prose is beautifully supple, and the novel shines when she reads “Gatsby” against the grain: The first page transforms one of Fitzgerald’s metaphors about women in summer into a captivating intimacy between Jordan and Daisy, and the whole of Chapter 4 is a stunning play on Fitzgerald’s use of the word “careless.” The novel falters, though, when integrating fantasy more generally: It’s such a tight reversal of its original’s core dynamics that there isn’t room for the fantastic elements to do more than gild the story’s lily. They only echo, diminished and indistinct, the tensions Vo’s already playing with to good effect, obstructing each other where they should blend, like a cocktail made with fine spirits but mixed in awkward proportions. Despite that, the book remains a sumptuous, decadent read.

SWORD STONE TABLE: Old Legends, New Voices (Vintage, 465 pp., paper, $17) is also a book of retellings and transformations. Splendidly edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington, the anthology builds a kaleidoscope of Arthurian mythography organized into temporal sections — “Once” for stories set in the mythic past, “Present” for more recently historical and contemporary stories, and “Future” for, well, futuristic science fiction. The pieces are dazzlingly different while overlapping and interweaving like chain mail.

Arthurian tradition consists of almost 10 centuries of reinventions and reimaginings across various polities. Sexual and ethnic diversities are already embedded in the canon, as well as wildly disparate takes on any given character; whether King Arthur was the best king ever or a Herod who murdered children depends on which parts of Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” you read. You don’t need to be familiar with the breadth of Arthuriana to enjoy “Sword Stone Table,” but it’s a real pleasure, if you’re an Arthur nerd, to pick out which facets of the prism the authors are shining their own lights through.

No story here is less than solid, but standouts for me included Ausma Zehanat Khan’s “The Once and Future Qadi,” in which King Arthur summons a Cordoban judge to Camelot to determine whether Guinevere is guilty of adultery; Maria Dahvana Headley’s extraordinary “Mayday,” which assembles 19th-century artifacts surrounding the “presidential run of one Mr. Arthur Pendragon, the Cleveland-based millionaire” with a dark secret past; Waubgeshig Rice’s profoundly moving “Heartbeat,” in which an Indigenous community’s once and future kinship is not so much pulled from a stone as unearthed from beneath it; and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s “A Shadow in Amber,” which sets “The Lady of Shalott” in a near-future Mexico City where the young and poor can sell portions of their experiences to the wealthy. If you got excited about Dev Patel starring in “The Green Knight,” you’ll definitely want to pick this up.