Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme: Disaster Bingo 2020: Ways This Year Could Be Even Worse.

Look, I know 2020 is a stand out year for things going wrong, and every time I hear someone say “it can’t get any worse” I also hear 2020 saying “hold my beer”, and everybody pulls out their Disaster Bingo cards to see if they had murder hornets, or recession, or our current largest wildfire in history is now the second largest because of an outbreak of gender reveal parties (I, personally, narrowly missed checking off that one due to the tiny printing in the Bingo square). And while we can’t stop any of these surprises from happening, maybe we can take the edge off by at least eliminating that element of surprise and updating our Disaster Bingo cards. That way at least someone might be able to claim victory while looking over the ashes of this year.

So if you like:

Near future science fiction mostly based on science
Big fat novels with a bunch of characters
Disturbingly accurate predictions
The structure of Stephen King’s The Stand
Stories that don’t have a depressing ending

You might like

Earth, by David Brin

Where the Disaster Bingo square is: subatomic black hole consuming the planet.

Overview

Written in 1990 and set in 2038, the backdrop of Earth has a number of uncomfortable parallels to 2020 as a scientist goes searching for a subatomic black hole that got dropped during an experiment, and may be consuming the planet in short order.

Sample passage

“I’m told you want to discuss the Iquitos incident, Dr. Lustig. And the miniature black hole you let slip out of your hands there. Frankly, I thought you’d be sick of that embarrassment by now. What did some press hacks call it then? A possible China Syndrome?”

Stan cut in. “A few sensationalists set off a five-minute panic on the World Net, until the scientific community showed everybody that tiny singularities like Alex’s dissipate harmlessly. They’re too small to last long by themselves.”

Hutton raised one dark eyebrow. “Is that so, Dr. Lustig?”

Alex had faced that question so many times since Iquitos. By now he had countless stock answers — from five-second sound bites for the vid cameras to ten-minute lullabies for Senate investigators… all the way to hours of abstruse mathematics to soothe his fellow physicists. He really ought to be used to it by now. Still the question burned, as it had the first time.

Talk to me, Lustig, ” the reporter, Pedro Manella, had demanded on that ashen afternoon in Peru, as they watched rioting students set Alex’s work site ablaze. “Tell me that thing you made isn’t about to eat its way to China. ”

Lying had become so reflexive since then, it took some effort to break the habit today. “Um, what did Stan tell you?” he asked George Hutton, whose broad features still glistened under a thin gloss of perspiration.

“Only that you claim to have a secret. Something you’ve kept from reporters, tribunals… even the security agencies of a dozen nations. In this day and age, that’s impressive by itself.

“But we Maori people of New Zealand have a saying,” he went on. “A man who can fool chiefs, and even gods, must still face the monsters he himself created.

“Have you created a monster, Dr. Lustig?”

When the mob cut the power cables, Lustig,” the persistent journalist asked while shooting, “that let your black hole out of its magnetic cage. It fell into the Earth then, no? So what happens now? Will it emerge again, blazing and incinerating some hapless place halfway around the world?

“What did you make here, Lustig? A beast that will devour us all?”

Even then, Alex recognized the hidden message between the words. The renowned investigator hadn’t been seeking truth; he wanted reassurance.

No, of course I didn’t,” Alex remembered telling Manella on that day, and everyone else since then. Now he let go of the lie with relief.

“Yes, Mr. Hutton. I think I made the very Devil itself.”

Takeaway

One of my favorite ways of describing dated science fiction is the phrase “Nothing says old like yesterday’s vision of tomorrow”. This comes up a lot in science fiction, and one of the surprising things about Brin’s Earth is the number of predictions that came true. Between chapters, Brin intersperses short slices of life with unrelated characters to provide a sense of depth to the novel. So it’s a disturbingly relatable backdrop for the large cast of characters trying to save the planet. Despite the grim scenario, Brin’s justified optimism in what we humans can achieve as a species (although past performance is no guarantee of future results) comes through, sending the message that we can fix all of this – if we really want to.

Or if you like:

Political satire that’s maybe too on the nose
Neal Stephenson’s early works
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22
Political thrillers
Experimental neurotechnology

You might like

Interface, by Stephen Bury (Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George)

Where the Disaster Bingo square is: A presidential candidate who may be under the control of someone else.

Overview

A satirical look at how a high tech presidential campaign is run, and some questions raised when one candidate has some experimental medical technology in his brain.

Sample passage

Have you ever been on TV, Aaron?”

“Just incidentally.”

“How did you think that you looked?”

“Not very good. Actually I was kind of shocked by how strange I looked.”

“Your eyes looked as if they were bulging out of your head, did they not?”

“Exactly. How did you know that?”

“The gamma curve of a video camera determines its response to light,” Cy Ogle said. “If the curve were straight, then dim things would look dim and bright things bright, just as they do in reality, and as they do, more or less, on any decent film stock. But because the gamma curve is not a straight line, dim things tend to look muddy and black, while bright things tend to glare and overload; the only things that look halfway proper are in the middle. Now, you have dark eyes, and they are deeply set in your skull, so that they tend to be in shadow. By contrast, the whites of your eyes are intensely bright. If you knew what I know, you would keep them fixed straight ahead in their sockets when you were on television, exposing as little of the white as possible. But because you are not versed in this subject, you swivel your eyes around as you look at different things, and when you do, the white part predominates and it jumps out of the screen because of the gamma curve; your eyes look like bulging white globes set in a muddy dark background.”

“Is this the kind of thing that you teach to politicians?”

“Just a sample,” Ogle said.

“Gee, it’s really a shame that—”

“That our political system revolves around such trivial matters. Aaron, please do not waste my time and yours by voicing the obvious.”

“Sorry.”

“That’s how it is, and how it will be until high-definition television becomes the norm.”

“Then what will happen?”

“All of the politicians currently in power will be voted out of office and we will have a completely new power structure. Because high-definition television has a flat gamma curve and higher resolution, and people who look good on today’s television will look bad on HDTV and voters will respond accordingly. Their oversized pores will be visible, the red veins in their noses from drinking too much, the artificiality of their TV-friendly hairdos will make them all look, on HDTV, like country-and-western singers. A new generation of politicians will take over and they will all look like movie stars, because HDTV will be a great deal like film, and movie stars know how to look good on film.”

Takeaway

Interface was originally published in 2005 by Stephenson and George under the pen name Stephen Bury, and given it’s darkly satirical but feels-a-bit-too-close-to-the-truth take on the American political process I’ve felt it should be required reading for all voters – especially the asides where the media experts break down the data science they’re using and tricks for looking good in public. The pacing is fast, the asides are interesting, and the “it’s funny ‘cause it’s true” humor allows for some interesting commentary. Interface reads a lot like Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and I gotta say I miss the days when he wrote books in this style.

Or if you like:

Carl Sagan’s Contact
David Brin’s Earth
Hard science fiction
Questions raised by Terminator 2

You might like

The Chronoliths by Robert Charles Wilson

Where the Disaster Bingo square is: city crushing monuments from the future sent back in time.*

Overview

An ordinary man gets wrapped up in the events around the creation of giant monuments sent back from the future that commemorate military victories which haven’t happened yet, raising serious questions about how set the future is…

Sample passage

Nothing is coincidental. I know that now.

In our ignorance we might have mistaken it for a spaceship or a weapon, but the truth is that I recognized it as a kind of monument as soon as I could see it clearly. Imagine a truncated Washington Monument made of sky-blue glass and gently rounded at all corners. I couldn’t guess who had made it or how it had got here — apparently in a single night — but for all its strangeness it did look distinctly man-made, and men make such things for a single purpose: to announce themselves, to declare their presence and display their power. That it should be here at all was dazzlingly strange, but there was no mistaking the solidity of it — the weight, the size, the stunning incongruity.

Takeaway

While The Chronoliths explores an interesting premise: do these monuments to victories in battles that have yet to be fought create self-fulfilling prophecies? It is also a very grounded novel that unfolds over the next fifty-ish years, following the protagonist is an ordinary person that just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be involved with the appearances of these city destroying monuments. The book splits into three parts, examining the initial reaction to the Chronoliths, the societal impact of these violent messages from the future, and ends with an attempt to determine if the future is really set.

Throughout the writing is tight, and not all the struggles the characters face are world shaking, but that really helps to sell the story. If you’re a fan of near-future science fiction, I’d highly recommend giving this a read.

(*I realize any other year this would be totally beyond the pale, but if I learned one thing from this year, it is that when a character does something clearly stupid just to advance the plot – usually disregarding the advice of some expert or the protagonist, it’s not sloppy writing but proof the author has a deep understanding that, apparently, a lot of people want to be right more than they want to be alive.
So since they were correct about something that inexplicable, it makes bombing cities with monuments from the future only that much more plausible.)

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column.

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