The best new sci-fi books this month from Stephen King to an Ursula K. Le Guin reissue

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A new short story collection from Stephen King, You Like It Darker, is out in May

Shane Leonard

Every month, I trawl through publishers’ catalogues so I can tell you about the new science fiction being released. And every month, I’m disappointed to see so much more fantasy on publishers’ lists than sci-fi. I know it’s a response to the huge boom in readers of what’s been dubbed “romantasy”, and I’m not knocking it – I love that sort of book too. But it would be great to see more good, hard, mind-expanding sci-fi in the offing as well.

In the meantime, there is definitely enough for us sci-fi fans to sink our teeth into this month, whether it’s a reissue of classic writing from Ursula K. Le Guin, some new speculative short stories from Stephen King or murder in space from Victor Manibo and S. A. Barnes.

Last month, I tipped Douglas Preston’s Extinction and Sofia Samatar’s The Practice, the Horizon, and the Chain as books I was looking forward to. I can report that they were both excellent: Extinction was a lot of good, clean, Jurassic Park-tinged fun, while Samatar’s offering was a beautiful and thought-provoking look at life on a generation ship.

There are few sci-fi and fantasy writers more brilliant (and revered) than Ursula K. Le Guin. This reissue of her first full-length collection of essays features a new introduction from Hugo and Nebula award-winner Ken Liu and covers the writing of The Left Hand of Darkness and A Wizard of Earthsea, as well as her advocacy for sci-fi and fantasy as legitimate literary mediums. I’ve read some of these essays but not all, and I won’t be missing this collection.

This isn’t science fiction, not quite, but it is one of the best and most important books I have read for some time. It sees Jacobsen lay out, minute by minute, what would happen if an intercontinental ballistic missile hit Washington DC. How would the US react? What, exactly, happens if deterrence fails? Jacobsen has spoken to dozens of military experts to put together what her publisher calls a “non-fiction thriller”, and what I call the scariest book I have possibly ever read (and I’m a Stephen King fan; see below). We’re currently reading it at the New Scientist Book Club, and you can sign up to join us here.

Forty years ago, William Gibson published Neuromancer. Since then, it has entranced millions of readers right from its unforgettable opening line: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel…”. Neuromancer gave us the literary genre that is cyberpunk, and we can now welcome a huge, two-volume anthology celebrating cyberpunk’s best stories, by writers from Cory Doctorow to Justina Robson, and from Samuel R. Delaney to Philip K. Dick. I have both glorious-sounding volumes, brought together by anthologist Jared Shurin, on my desk (using up most of the space on it), and I am looking forward to dipping in.

You could categorise Stephen King as a horror writer. I see him as an expert chronicler of the dark side of small-town America, and from The Tommyknockers and its aliens to Under the Dome with its literally divisive trope, he frequently slides into sci-fi. Even the horror at the heart of It is some sort of cosmic hideousness. He is one of my favourite writers, and You Like It Darker is a new collection of short stories that moves from “the folds in reality where anything can happen” to a “psychic flash” that upends dozens of lives. There’s a sequel to Cujo, and a look at “corners of the universe best left unexplored”. I’ve read the first story so far, and I can confirm there is plenty for us sci-fi fans here.

Not sci-fi, but fiction about science – and from one of the UK’s most exciting writers (if you haven’t read The Essex Serpent yet, you’re in for a treat). This time, Perry tells the story of Thomas Hart, a columnist on the Essex Chronicle who becomes a passionate amateur astronomer as the comet Hale-Bopp approaches in 1997. Our sci-fi columnist Emily Wilson is reviewing it for New Scientist’s 11 May issue, and she has given it a vigorous thumbs up (“a beautiful, compassionate and memorable book,” she writes in a sneak preview just for you guys).

Dr Ophelia Bray is a psychologist and expert in the study of Eckhart-Reiser syndrome, a fictional condition that affects space travellers in terrible ways. She’s sent to help a small crew whose colleague recently died, but as they begin life on an abandoned planet, she realises that her charges are hiding something. And then the pilot is murdered… Horror in space? Mysterious planets? I’m up for that.

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In Hey, Zoey, the protagonist finds an animatronic sex doll hidden in her garage

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Hot on the heels of Sierra Greer’s story about a sex robot wondering what it means to be human in Annie Bot, the acclaimed young adult and children’s author Sarah Crossan has ventured into similar territory. In Hey, Zoey, Dolores finds an animatronic sex doll hidden in her garage and assumes it belongs to her husband David. She takes no action – but then Dolores and Zoey begin to talk, and Dolores’s life changes.

Davi has tried to take down the Dark Lord before, rallying humanity and making the final charge – as you do. But the time loop she is stuck in always defeats her, and she loses the battle in the end. This time around, Davi decides that the best thing to do is to become the Dark Lord herself. You could argue that this is fantasy, but it has a time loop, so I’m going to count it as sci-fi. It sounds fun and lighthearted: quotes from early readers are along the lines of “A darkly comic delight”, and we could all use a bit of that these days.

It’s 2089, and there’s an old murder hanging over the clientele of Space Habitat Altaire, a luxury space hotel, while an “unforeseen threat” is also brewing in the service corridors. A thriller in space? Sounds excellent – and I’m keen to see if Manibo makes use of the latest research into the angle at which blood might travel following violence in space, as reported on by our New Scientist humour columnist Marc Abrahams recently.

Part of the Doomed Earth series, this follows Lieutenant Selene Genji, who has been genetically engineered with partly alien DNA and has “one last chance to save the Earth from destruction”. Beautifully retro cover for this space adventure – not to judge a book in this way, of course…

Two sets of people have had their minds uploaded into a quantum computer in the Ontario of 2059. Astronauts preparing for the world’s first interstellar voyage form one group; the other contains convicted murderers, sentenced to a virtual-reality prison. Naturally, disaster strikes, and, yup, they must work together to save Earth from destruction. Originally released as an Audible Original with Brendan Fraser as lead narrator, this is the first print edition of the Hugo and Nebula award-winning Sawyer’s 26th novel.

Just in case you still haven’t read it, Justin Cronin’s gloriously dreamy novel The Ferryman, set on an apparently utopian island where things aren’t quite as they seem, is out in paperback this month. It was the first pick for the New Scientist Book Club, and it is a mind-bending, dreamy stunner of a read. Go try it – and sign up for the Book Club in the meantime!

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