When I totaled up my monthly review stats way back in September, I realized that I had lost focus on recent science fiction. Of the 174 works I had reviewed thus far in 2023, were science fiction books published in 2023. This despite the fact that science fiction is my favourite flavor of speculative fiction. I blame Communism, Senator Proxmire, and the Thor Power Tool Decision the distraction of older works and the long-running dominance of fantasy.
In case other readers are similarly retro-focused and interested in finding some newer material, I can suggest the following five 2023 science fiction works that are well worth reading.
Translation State by Ann Leckie (2023)
Foundling Reet Hluid, raised by doting adoptive parents, has no idea who his biological progenitors might have been. Heroth Nadkal, President of the Siblings of Hikipu, offers one possibility: perhaps Reet is a long-lost Schan, in which case he may be destined to glory as an inspiring figurehead for the oppressed Hikipu. However, the enigmatic Presger Translators offer an entirely different possibility, one (that if true) means that not only is Reet not a human of lofty status, he is not a human at all.
Leckie’s first novel in…is it really four years?…is a standalone that shares a setting with her Hugo-winning Imperial Radch novels, though it takes place largely outside the Radch. Translation State focuses on non-Radchaii characters who use a variety of pronouns, reflecting a spectrum of nonbinary gender identities. The novel also features a court proceeding concerning what precisely counts as human, a subject long dear to SF’s heart. Unfortunately for Reet, in this case the criteria are less , and more “does not inadvertently present an existential threat to unwary humans.”
Life Beyond Us edited by Julie Nováková, Lucas K. Law, and Susan Forest (2023)
The editors offer a classic assortment of science essays accompanied by thematically-related science fiction stories. Authors selected for inclusion range from famous to not yet famous. Subjects examined are wide-ranging. Happily, the anthology is hefty enough to stun an ox if hurled vigorously, which allows ample room for the extensive contents.
I was surprised to notice that despite the complications imposed by an ongoing pandemic, the editors delivered their tome as promised and very nearly on time. Other editors could heed Nováková, Law, and Forest’s example.
Station Six by S. J. Klapecki (2023)
Lunar Module Construction — LMC — has employed many workers on its Station Six. The pay was low, benefits nonexistent … but at least it was a job. Now LMC is firing them all. The illicit Federation of Unions is recruiting the fired workers. LMC retaliates with the army of mercenaries it keeps on retainer.
In Station Six, “union” denotes an organization of workers who use collective bargaining and other measures when necessary to secure more equitable arrangements for their members. Where do SF authors get their crazy ideas?
Flight & Anchor by Nicole Kornher-Stace (2023)
Tweens O6 and 22 were taken and remade by the Stellaxis corporation into child super-soldiers. When 06 and 22 escape Stellaxis, the Director of the program must find some way to entice the pair back. Entice, not compel, because these super-soldier kids are faster, stronger, and tougher than baseline humans. The Director has one big advantage: the cyborgs require constant upkeep to survive.
This novella is a prequel to Kornher-Stace’s 2021’s Firebreak. In the spirit of “the dog doesn’t die,” since older versions of 06 and 22 appear in Firebreak and other works, it is unlikely either will die in this prequel. It seems odd that I would encounter two 2023 SF novels about workers being brutally exploited by ruthless corporations. What possible reason could there be for SF authors to focus on this subject in particular at this specific moment in time? This must be just one of those odd coincidences one sees from time to time in SF…
The Deep Sky by Yume Kitasei (2023)
Charismatic visionary billionaire Linda Trembling convinced the nations of Earth to set aside their differences in order to fund the sub-light starship, Phoenix. A decade after launch, Phoenix’s mission is imperiled by sabotage. Is the bomber a ringer planted on the crew by terrestrial terrorists? Was the bomb an expression of escalating international rivalries? Or is there some other explanation? Perhaps Asuka can find the answers…if only Asuka weren’t the least qualified person on board Phoenix.
Phoenix would be a tribute to what a single highly motivated oligarch can accomplish using other people’s money were it not for a few disturbing details: the starship crew was selected via a process seemingly designed to exacerbate divisions; certain vital subsystems lack redundancy. Ah well…plot fodder, and room for sequels.
Obviously, there have to have been far more new SF novels and novellas published this year than the five above. Readers, please feel free to recommend in comments below.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021, 2022, and 2023 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.