Space is by no means conquered — and what is, really? the dodo? — but a bit of the romance has dissipated. Did it start when NASA retired the space shuttle? Or when billionaires got into the low-orbit, low-stakes launch game? Their intentions aren’t all bad, but these nouveau riche rocketeers just aren’t cool.
If you’re feeling nostalgic for the dark and daring days of the Cold War’s Space Race well, a) you’re crazy, but b) there’s a new collection by Polish sci-fi master Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006) that should scratch that itch. Nine of the 12 tales in The Truth and Other Stories, just published by MIT Press, have never before been translated into English, and they are packed with weird robots, mad scientists, and otherworldly threats.
These retro-futuristic yarns are brainy enough, but they’re often funnier and more playful than Lem’s famously mind-warping novel Solaris — twice adapted into memorably moody movies. The 1972 version by Andrei Tarkovsky is quiet, dreary Soviet filmmaking at its finest. Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 iteration was slimmed down but decent. Lem apparently didn’t care for either.
Speaking of film adaptations: If you only know Cixin Liu from the 2019 Mandarin-language blockbuster The Wandering Earth (still on Netflix), seek out the modern Chinese sci-fi king’s new story collection of the same name, due to be published by Tor Books Oct. 26. Where the movie is rather silly and Michael Bay-ish, the story pulses with classic big-idea sci-fi optimism. Plus, maybe the concept of driving our planet through the solar system via gigantic rocket engines just looks better in the mind’s eye than it does on the screen.
Anyway, here are some of other excellent new books, which are more grounded but no less inventive.
Palmares, Gayl Jones. Championed by Toni Morrison and praised by James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and John Updike, Gayl Jones was declared a bold and brilliant new voice of Black America with the publishing of her first two novels — Corregidora (in 1975) and Eva’s Man (1976). But fame never suited the Kentucky-born author, and her career since has been defined almost as much by her reclusiveness and long silences as her powerful, intimate stories of slavery and the scars it passes down from one generation to the next. Now 71, Jones has just released her first novel in 22 years — the immersive and devastating Palmares, about a fugitive slave girl in war-ravaged, colonial Brazil — and has four more books due over the next two years. (Beacon Press, $27.95, out now)
Reprieve, James Han Mattson. All modern horror is somewhat meta, at least the good stuff, but this clever and pointed new thriller by James Han Mattson is particularly self-aware. That’s partly due to its examination of the scare industry itself, specifically those extreme, “full-contact” haunted house attractions that make Terror Behind the Walls (R.I.P.) feel like a walk in the park. In this case it’s the Quigley House, an infamous, high-stakes escape room that becomes the site of an actual murder. But Reprieve’s more earthly specters (sex tourism, misogyny, ruthless capitalism, etc.) prove the most insidious. (HarperCollins, $27.99, Oct. 5)
I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness, Claire Vaye Watkins. Born in Nevada with Manson Family blood in her veins, Claire Vaye Watkins often writes about the cruel and indifferent desert. In 2015′s grim but fantastical Gold Fame Citrus, North America is being consumed by a sea of dunes erupting from the middle out, the sand slowly consuming towns, people, civilization. With a title swiped from an Austin indie band — and a main character who’s also an author named Claire Vaye Watkins — the funny and fearsome I Love You but I’ve Chosen Darkness offers an earlier view of environmental collapse. Still, the desert may be Claire’s undoing, as she leaves her family behind for a book reading in Reno and may never go back. (Riverhead, $27, Oct. 5)
Crossroads: A Key to All Mythologies, Volume 1, Jonathan Franzen. Once school’s out, there’s no such thing as required reading, but some kind of dinner bell goes off among readers and critics every time Jonathan Franzen drops a new 600-page family drama (around once or twice a decade). Curmudgeonly, controversial and talented, Franzen has the air of old-school authordom about him, though one shudders at the satisfaction he’d gain from such an assessment, not to mention all the begrudgingly laudatory reviews he’ll receive for this latest slab of swaggering genius. Not long ago he wondered aloud whether he’d written his last novel; now here’s Crossroads, the engrossing and astute first installment of a three-part generational saga. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30, Oct. 5)
The Days of Afrekete, Asali Solomon. From most angles, Liselle is doing well: She’s a Bryn Mawr-educated Black woman with a nice home, a family, a housekeeper, the works. But maybe it’s all a house of cards? Her white, well-off husband just lost an ego-driven congressional bid, and one of the guests at tonight’s post-campaign wine-and-cheese soiree might be an FBI agent investigating political corruption. Suddenly Liselle is wondering how the racial and sexual awakenings of her college years could have led her to such a dull perch “on the wrong side of history.” And that’s just the launchpad for West Philly author Asali Solomon’s tense, affecting, and slyly funny second novel. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, Oct. 19)
Others to consider
Chronicles From the Happiest People on Earth, Wole Soyinka. Soyinka, who became the first African-born Nobel laureate in 1986, publishes his first novel in 50 years — a sharp satire full of corruption and intrigue. (Pantheon, $28, out now)
Cloud Cuckoo Land, Anthony Doerr. The author of All the Light We Cannot See returns with an ambitious and heartbreaking novel whose characters are scattered between 15th-century Constantinople and a spaceship in a post-Earth future. (Scribner, $30, out now)
On Animals, Susan Orlean. The acclaimed New Yorker essayist (and charmingly tipsy tweeter) explores humanity’s connections to its fellow beasts of the field, from backyard chickens to showdogs to pet tigers and more. (Avid Reader, $28, Oct. 12)
Silverview, John le Carré. A bookshop owner becomes tangled up in international espionage in what may be the last novel by the great spy thriller by author le Carré, who passed away in December. (Viking, $28, Oct. 12)
Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time, Teju Cole. Cole’s essays on art and ethics in the modern world are scholarly but not impersonal, honest but not hopeless, and illuminating in ways that stick with you. (University of Chicago Press, $22.50, Oct. 27)
More books to come
Look for Patrick Rapa’s monthly roundup of great reads on Inquirer.com and in the Sunday Inquirer.