If you love inventive storytelling but you're not a fan of the George R.R. Martin school of fantasy, worry not. Publishers are offering some of the best new books in fantasy's cousin genre, science fiction, for your reading pleasure during the summer:
Ballantine: 431 pp., $18
The last time China Miéville ("Embassytown," "Kraken") ventured into YA territory, it was to give readers a vision of England's capital and of its strange mirror-image, a place described by that book's title as "Un Lun Dun." Now, in his latest, "Railsea," a book ostensibly for the YA crowd but billed by the publisher as a novel for all ages, Miéville gives us another strange mirror-image: This time, it's his variation on that classic American novel "Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville (and "Miéville" is just a keypad slip away from typing "Melville")).
In "Railsea," the ocean/Pequod/white whale of Melville's novel have all been replaced by prairie/train/giant white mole (known as a "moldywarpe"). As for the role of Ishmael, Miéville gives us Sham, a young apprentice to a doctor aboard the Medes, one of the trains that races across a network of rails in search of its quarry. Some things don't change, for instance, such as the cry of "There she blows!" when the mole is spotted in the distance. Sham and the rest of the train's crew scramble to have a look and see a monster "soaring from its burrow in a clod-cloud & explosion … Crashed at last back down through the topsoil & disappeared into the below.…The moldywarpe had breached."
Other names besides Melville's will surely come to mind as you read this thrilling tale (which includes illustrations of various critters encountered in these pages) — "Dune's" Frank Herbert (the mole seems like kin to Herbert's sandworms), for example, and even Robert Louis Stevenson (Sham's adventures include a map and pirates). But in this, as in all of his works, Miéville has that special knack for evoking other writers even while making the story wholly his own.
Tor/Tom Doherty: 557 pp., $27.99
Some books make grand claims in their titles that seem impossible to satisfy — but David Brin's "Existence" is completely justified. The award-winning futurist (his other novels include "Earth" and "The Postman") is interested in nothing less than humanity's past, present and future in his complex new novel.
Meet Gerald Livingston, whose profession is a most unexpected kind of garbage collection: He works in orbit around the Earth. Gerald spends his days trawling for tons of debris that's been launched there (when you're filling up landfills and need somewhere else to go, the space overhead seems like an ideal dumping ground) with a long bola attached to a space station. Gerald's job might seem more dazzling than what the average desk jockey does, but it's actually quite humdrum. That all changes, however, on the day he retrieves something strange and unique, "something glittery, vaguely oval in shape, gleaming with a pale blueness that pulsed like something eager."
Gerald — and readers — soon realize it isn't mere junk but an alien artifact that's a kind of communication device. But what message is it eager to communicate? Who left it behind?
The effort to answer these questions entrances the world's tired population, which has seen its share of technological advances alongside plenty of apocalyptic fads. Whodunits are a sure thing in publishing — just about everyone loves a good mystery — but Brin's multifaceted novel proves that another question resonates just as powerfully with most people: Are we alone in the universe?
Sorry Please Thank You
Pantheon: 240 pp., $24.95
Like his debut novel, "How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe," Charles Yu's new collection of stories mixes humor and clever conceits with a perfect deadpan delivery. How else do you get readers to suspend disbelief and enter your world except by keeping a straight face and letting the ideas do all the work?
Some of Yu's characters are struggling after individuality while they're trapped in strange jobs. They assist zombie customers (yes, real zombies) in a 24/7 superstore in "First Person Shooter"; or they try to connect with colleagues in an emotional engineering firm (the firm's slogan is "Don't feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you").
Others find themselves in even stranger, unexpected places, like the speaker of "Hero Absorbs Major Damage," who suffers an existential crisis inside a fantasy quest video game: "Maybe this is all just a game, an elaborate architecture created by some intelligent designer, out of what, boredom? … I can know all that and at the same time know that it matters. It has to matter."
Later stories turn up the flame on Yu's sarcasm (in "Yeoman," what's one of the greatest terrors of a space journey? Boredom); others supply sharp, crisp insights that will have you chuckling and shaking your head. The speaker in the book's title story, which takes the form of a suicide note, gives us the summary of his life in the following: "My life, nutshell: 0-8 yrs. happy, no reason, 9-19 happy, wrong reasons, 20-33 unhappy for all the right reasons, 34 to present moment, unhappy, looking for a reason."
I wonder, what would any of our lives look like if they were spelled out in this fashion? Yu's story collection invites each reader to do the math.