Machines Like Us – Ian McEwan

McEwan has created an alternative 1982 London in which Britain loses the Falklands War and PM Thatcher is defeated by Tony Benn. Most significantly, Sir Alan Turing achieves an artificial intelligence breakthrough resulting in the creation of humanoid robots; prototypes are named Adam and Eve. Charlie purchases an Adam and together with his girlfriend Miranda, Adam’s personality (mind) is personalized. What follows is a fascinating 3-way relationship story. With machine learning, what makes us human? This provocative and enthralling story is one of McEwan’s best.

The Dreamers – Karen Thompson Walker

Given the current concern over a potential coronavirus pandemic, this remarkable book is prescient by capturing the mood perfectly of a contagion, specifically the chaos and confusion. In this story, individuals fall asleep and can’t be aroused; sleep is associated with a profound dream state and is fatal in many cases. This story is not about the medical/scientific search for the cause and cure; the focus is on residents caught in an eventual quarantine. Ms. Walker previously has captured the devastating consequences of an unexpected and unexplained catastrophe in her earlier (2012) book The Age of Miracles.  A topical and riveting read.

The Future of Another Timeline – Annalee Newitz

An imaginative look at time travel using 5 ancient machines of unknown origin, one of which in Flin Flon, Manitoba. Travellers can go back in time only; most of the action in this story takes place in 2022, 1992-93 and 1893-94. The goal is to alter the timeline, to reduce future misogyny and prevent the loss of female reproductive rights (think Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments).This is a very entertaining blend of historical and speculative writing; highly recommended.

The Old Drift – Namwali Serpell

This delightful novel resents a sweeping saga of Africa (Zambia) from 1903 to the future (2024), covering three generations (the grandmothers, mothers and children) of black, brown and white individuals. The challenges of life in Zambia’s transition from colonialism to independence are highlighted graphically: the conflict of wealth and privilege versus poverty, the HIV catastrophe, revolutionary actions, hair, high-tech drones…. In fact, you should be wondering how these diverse topics can be inter-related!. This is a wonderful blend of historical and speculative writing with some great phrases; a married couple is described precisely –  “their marriage has ceased to be conjugal; his body did not conjugate hers; there was no grammar between them”.

The First Time Lauren Paling Died – Alyson Rudd

An intriguing speculative fiction story set in 1970-80s England. When Lauren dies accidentally at age 13, she reappears in an alternate reality; new lives also begin for her parents. Lauren has glimpses of her former lives, that she has slightly different mothers, for example. By her third life, these glimpses of her previous two lives become increasingly disturbing. This is an imaginative look at loss and grief.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

I first read this amazing book about 30 years ago so a re-reading was in order as a prelude to her new book The Testaments. And simply put, the Handmaid’s Tale is a masterpiece. Atwood’s writing is perfect, a slow reveal of the horrors of the Gilead revolution: the rise of totalitarianism and religious fundamentalism, the loss of women’s rights and autonomy with rampant misogyny. Handmaids are possessed by men (Of Fred = Offred) as breeders and are not taught to read! It is chilling to realize that many of the regressive features of Gilead are happening now throughout the world. Atwood is a national treasure.

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

As a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is equally compelling but with a very different tone. Whereas The Handmaid’s Tale had a single narrator (Offred), The Testaments (set 16 years later) has three voices: two very different young women, one raised in Gilead and one raised outside, and the notorious Aunt Lydia. The resulting story is less introspective with more action, thus less reactive. The seeds of dissent are outlined clearly and logically with some Machiavellian motivations. This is a page turner, a completely engrossing read.

The Psychology of Time Travel – Kate Mascarenhas

A sensational first novel for a number of reasons. The important characters are all women. Specifically, four women perfect a time travel procedure; there is no emphasis on technology, the reality of time travel is treated as a matter-of-fact occurrence. Instead, as the title indicates, the story is about the psychological consequences of time travel. Future versions of an individual can co-exist. How do you cope with knowledge about your future self: who you marry, how you die? And finally, the book contains a cracking good mystery. Very entertaining.

Smoke – Dan Vyleta

Sometimes speculative fiction creates entire new fantastical worlds. In other examples, like this book, a paradoxical provocation is introduced to a familiar world, in this case England about a century ago. The novel aspect in this story is that evil in thought or deed is manifested by the emanation of smoke from bodies. This produces a class distinction or separation; the upper class aristocrats and gentry generally do not smoke but the lower working classes are drenched in smoke that becomes a dense soot. So London becomes a particularly dark place. The protagonists are three young people exposed to lies, secrets and increasing violence and treachery. The crucial issues: rich versus poor, political differences, right versus wrong, love versus lust, and lots of guilt. This is very fine writing, reminiscent of some of Stephen King’s best stories.