Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch*****

darkmatterNote: my records showed this would be published today, but they are in error. This title actually comes out in August and I have run my review earlier than I should have. You’ll see this again at a date closer to publication.

Blake Crouch is a seasoned writer, but I had never read his work before; only recently have I ventured back into science fiction, a genre I abandoned when some writers began incorporating tech jokes and algorithms into their work. Humanities oriented and gun shy, I veered back to my other favorite genres. Crouch makes it a joy to be back reading sci fi. I received this DRC free, courtesy of Net Galley and Crown Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review. It’s for sale August 2, and it will be in theaters soon too. Don’t get left out, because this one is huge.

Jason Dessen is a teacher, having abandoned a burgeoning career in research in order to become a family man. The story is infused with the question almost every adult has, the question of the road not taken. By the time we’re in our thirties or even our mid-twenties, we have made hard choices that leave us musing occasionally about what might have happened if we had pursued a different course, if the destiny we either chose or were thrust into had played out differently. It is this question that Crouch taps into.

On an ordinary evening, Jason’s old friend calls him and asks him to come to a nearby bar and celebrate a momentous event. Jason is a father and happily married, so he doesn’t spend a lot of time hanging out in bars with the guys, and tonight is family night, so it’s especially important to be at home. But this celebration is particularly important to his friend, and so he steps out for one fast beer for the sake of the friendship, with the promise to bring home ice cream on his way home.

That’s not what happens.

On his way home, he is followed by someone, a guy who jumps him not for his wallet, but for his life. He’s knocked out and awakens thus:

 

   Where the hell am I? A hanger?

I catch a glint of memory—a needle puncturing my neck. I was injected with something. This is some crazy hallucination.

A radio squawks. “Extraction team, report. Over.”

The woman says with excitement bleeding through her voice, “We have Dessen. We’re out of the box and en route. Over.”

 

Until Jason’s research funding dried up, he had been working on a cube that could penetrate the “multiverse”, and take matter from the world in which we live to a parallel reality. In another life, Jason has not only done this, but done it on a spectacular level. Here we get into string theory and other aspects of science that are over my head, and this is the type of thing that prevents me from reading more technically demanding sci fi.  Happily, the author only stays there long enough to provide the foundation for the science fiction aspect of his story:

 

Most astrophysicists believe that the force holding stars and galaxies together—the thing that makes our whole universe work—comes from a theoretical substance we can’t measure or observe directly. Something they call dark matter. And this dark matter makes up most of the known universe…Some string theorists think it might be a clue to the existence of the multiverse.

 

The idea is that every time someone hits a benchmark in his life when he must make a choice—college versus work, career versus marriage, to have a child or not, to move away or stay here—there is some parallel version of himself that does the other thing in another universe.

Once I got to the part where string theory is mentioned, I recoiled in horror—was the whole book going to be like this now? How could I even review it?—and I went to read my other books for awhile. But when I picked it up again, we quickly blew through the technical part, which for all I know may be bad science for the sake of a great story anyway, and we were back in poor Jason’s bewildering life. From that moment forward, roughly the twelve percent mark, the story grabbed me by the hair and didn’t let go till I was done.

This story packs a walloping punch, and I have at least one friend who would have made it just fine through the science blurb but then would have been unable to tolerate the emotional torrent that follows. Some people don’t want a story that will make their heart beat faster, and if that’s you, this is not your book.

But for those that enjoy a genuine thriller, this book is for you.  In fact, it’s impossible to draw a line as to whether this story is more a thriller or science fiction. It has all the qualities of a strong thriller, but the story can’t be told without the sci fi foundation. For those that are leery of reading science fiction due to a lack of proficiency in astrophysics or other aspects of science, however, you’ll be fine here. Crouch touches on science long enough to get establish the basis of his story and hook the reader, and then it’s back to Jason and his many dilemmas.

Highly recommended to anyone with a literacy level of a high school senior or beyond. Get it now!

Grotto of the Dancing Deer, by Clifford D. Simak*****

grottoofthedancing This is the second time I’ve been fortunate enough to get a DRC of Clifford D Simak’s short stories, courtesy of Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media. (The last collection was titled We Install and Other Stories; I have reviewed it also.) Simak’s short stories are my kind of science fiction, the old school variety where there are no clever double entendres intended for–oh, for example–programmers that write obscure, difficult types of code. No, this is the stuff that is born of a fertile imagination and an excellent facility with words, and I enjoyed it start to finish, skimming nothing. And it’s for sale now, so you can get your own copy.

There’s an introduction by David W. Wixon that is probably intended to bring readers of the present up to date in understanding Simak, who wrote from 1930 until around 1980. I have to admit I don’t care for the tone of the introduction, although I have no doubt that Wixon is fond of Simak’s work. The irritation I experience in reading it is that it seems he is apologizing for Simak–this bit of dialogue is bad, for example, because Simak was so new at it–and I don’t think anyone needs to apologize for this writer, a hugely creative, intelligent man whose prose can stand up for itself. Get onto another page and check the list of awards Simak garnered over his lengthy career; it isn’t my imagination. He’s a terrific writer, and I cringe that anyone would be so supercilious as to apologize for his old friend as if Simak weren’t quite on his game.

But enough of that.

Time travel is always great fare for a short sci fi tale, and it’s used abundantly here. I think deep in his heart Simak must have also wanted to write some historical fiction, because time travel isn’t usually between the present time, even allowing for the fact that his present time when he was writing was quite some time before the present present time. He takes people from the future back to covered wagons, or to changed planets that have the habits of early American pioneers, particularly those of the wild west. And his characters are so tangible and so believable that they make the science fiction aspect of the story approachable to the reader whose science knowledge is limited. This inclination makes humanities-grounded individuals like myself so stinking happy, I can’t begin to tell you how much it pleases me. I never like to have some aspect of literature cut off from me because I am not sharp enough to handle it, but when sci fi becomes hugely technical, there’s nothing to do but to close the book and (if it isn’t a DRC) pass it on to someone more scientifically proficient than I am.

But Simak is accessible, all the time. His work isn’t dumbed down, but it is friendly and approachable. Anyone that has the ability to read at the level of a high school senior should be able to read this riveting collection without more than perhaps one or two Google searches, and those will likely be historical questions rather than technical ones.

I really enjoyed the title story, but my personal favorite of the lot is Crying Jag. In this tale, a local man has taken to drowning his sorrows in hooch, and then when he is sloppy drunk, he sits down and cries. Aliens land and are able to take the tears and the sorrow on tap, but with similar results; they get drunk from the sad stories and the tears. I laughed out loud through this one and frankly wondered what kind of creativity it would take to dream up something like this. I just loved it.

Such whimsy!

A more philosophical tale involves reaching an alien society that has labored for a long time to be able to bridge interplanetary culture and understanding; they have the perfect library for the use of the entire galaxy, absolutely free. Earth men that land here immediately begin scheming of ways to turn the “free” library into a private library for profit; hey, who’s to be the wiser? And in the end, I was bemused to see how it worked out.

I am always a little surprised that not more people read short stories. Time for most people is limited. When you finish a short story, you can give yourself permission to turn out the light and go to sleep. And Simak’s are of top caliber; the only writer whose short science fiction I enjoyed more might be Stephen Donaldson, and his vocabulary and prose is far less accessible.

High school teachers looking for good short science fiction for the classroom should look no further. The stories are varied in length and I would say they would be rated PG 13 if they were a movie instead of text; in other words, just fine for teenagers in the classroom, with a wealth of potential for discussion.

Highly recommended to all that enjoy old school science fiction.

Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems, by Timothy Zahn*****

Just released today; reviewed in November and bringing it back to remind you, because this is science fiction/fantasy at its best.

Seattle Book Mama

pawnsgambitPawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems is a collection of kick-ass science fiction stories, including a novella, produced digitally for the first time. This is the cool thing about Open Road Integrated Media: the publishers find outstanding work from the pre-digital era and bring it to present-day readers anew so that it can be widely read and appreciated all over again. But though these stories were written earlier, many of them have never been published in book form before. I got to check out the collection free in exchange for an honest review, and I struck oil. I wondered why I hadn’t found this writer earlier, since I have been known to binge on sci fi now and then since the 1990’s. What Zahn is best known for is the Star Wars series, which I didn’t read. In passing it by, I nearly missed a fine writer, and I will watch…

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The Children’s Home, by Charles Lambert*****

Hot off the presses! I reviewed this just before Christmas, and it is available today. Fantastic read.

Seattle Book Mama

thechildrenshomeLambert is a brilliant writer, and his absorbing new novel, The Children’s Home, is the best literary fiction I have read in some time. Thank you to Scribner and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review.

We start with Morgan, a bitter recluse rattling around in his immense family mansion, afraid to leave its walls for fear someone will see his face and ridicule him. His sister Rebecca runs the family business, and she hires Engel to serve as housekeeper and cook to him. Moira and David are two children that magically appear at his estate. Unlike normal children, they don’t leave messes lying around, whine, or need to be cleaned up; Morgan notices that whenever he wants to concentrate or not have the children around, they seem to vanish, appearing again when wanted.

Motherhood should be so sweet.

But back to…

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