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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken, Solaris, 2018, $11.99, tpb.

Golden State by Ben H. Winters, Mulholland Books, 2019, $28, hc.

Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear, Saga Press, 2019, $25.99, hc.

In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey, John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018, $23, hc.


If you had told me that Derek Künsken's first novel, The Quantum Magician, was his fifth, I would have believed it without question. There's a certainty of voice and structure that lifts it above most debuts (mine easily included); there's no infelicity to mark it as a fledgling attempt.

It's far-future sf, and while I would classify it as post-singularity, there's no immediate singularity to point out. However, in this brave new world, people are still people, conflicts are still conflicts, and power is still the deciding factor in the way the galactic hegemony, for want of a better word, interacts.

Belisarius is one of the genetically engineered sub-human races: Homo quantus. He is a blend of "normal" human and quantum computer; he was created and raised in an experiment paid for by the Anglo-Spanish Bank, one of the three big powerhouses in the hegemony. The experiment was in theory a success, but the Homo quantus, rather than computing future probabilities of chance—as was the hope—turned inward toward computational philosophical quantum science.

Homo quantus can exist in three states: baseline, which would be almost normal; savant, in which the social programming and personality is diminished in favor of objective observation and calculation; and the fugue state, in which all personality is shut off, and all of the brain's power is computational.

Belisarius was considered the prodigy of his generation; he could enter the fugue state at a much earlier age than previous generations. His problem: He couldn't leave it the same way. Most of his generation struggled to reach the fugue state, but it didn't threaten to kill them. In Belisarius, the switch that gets tripped when the body itself is in danger of death—by fever and the complications that arise from it—is broken. The curiosity and the need-to-know is far, far too strong.

To survive, Belisarius left home.

The problem that Belisarius then faced? He required the focus of thought, the use of his computational abilities. He required tough problems, difficult situations, to exercise the back brain. All of the Homo quantus do.

He discovered crime, of a sort. Confidence schemes. A mentor who could teach him the ins and outs of people, personality, greed, and power. As one might imagine, it was not an education he received at home.

When The Quantum Magician opens, it is with a small vignette of Belisarius in the Puppet Free City—a city the Puppets control, not a city which is free of puppets. He is running a scheme. The scheme involves a great deal of scientific complexity, but at heart, it's a con that takes advantage of age-old human greed.

A word about the Puppets. If Belisarius is Homo quantus, the Puppets are Homo pupa. Created to stand at a maximum height of under a meter, the Puppets, created by the Numen, were created to worship. To hold their creators in an awe so strong that awe is a requisite to their survival. And in the Puppet Free City, the religion of the Numenarchy is everything. The Puppets worship. The Numen are their objects of worship.

Pupa and quantus are not the only sub-species of humanity; there is, in the book, a third: Homo elidarus—genetically engineered humans who look like manatees, and were created by colony ship scientists to survive at great pressure under the water, because it was the only way their offspring could survive the world they were faced with. Unfortunately for the elidarus branch, they can't survive in normal gravity. Or anything approaching normal gravity.

None of the three races can breed without intervention.

So: Humans. Sub-humans. And of course, sentient AI.

Add to this mix: the Anglo-Spanish Bank, the Congregate, and the (less present) Middle Kingdom. They are powers, and part of their power base is the Axis Mundi. The science of the forerunners—the unknown and alien presence that is no longer extant, which allows travel across galaxies. Wormhole travel. Control a gate, and you control the space around it, the merchants who require it, etc. You can become a power on your own if you can discover such a gate and claim it.

The three patrons—The Bank, the Middle Kingdom, and the Congregate—have client races and planets, and built into their contracts is the agreement that any such discoveries belong to the patrons, period.

Belisarius is offered a job. He's approached by a soldier of the Union Expeditionary fleet. They have twelve war-ships. They want to use the Puppet Free City Axis to travel to Congregate space. In theory, they're clients of the Congregate. In practice, they want to free their own world from Congregate control—and they believe they now have the power to do so.

This fleet has been missing in action for forty standard years. Possibly a bit more. They are twelve antique ships, with antique tech. Belisarius, however, is called "The Quantum Magician," and has come highly recommended. When he asks the Union why they don't just pay the Puppets to move the ships, they reply that the Puppets want to keep half the fleet as payment. They're offering Belisarius a small ship.

But that small ship has the same drive technology the Union warships now possess—and that would be worth a fortune. More than a fortune. Because the tech is entirely new. Belisarius has never seen anything like it, on a quantum level.

Sneak twelve ships through a gate into the heart of enemy territory, where they can liberate their people, at long last. It's impossible.

No, it's almost impossible. Belisarius has survived, mentally intact, because of the cons he's run and undertaken, and this one? This might be too big for even him. And so the book goes Ocean's Eleven. Belisarius agrees to take the job, he assembles a team, and he gets to work.

There's a lot in this book about identity and drive, about purpose and choice, about instincts one can ignore and instincts one can't. All of the science is folded into the unfolding con and the people who are going to pull it off. The characters are larger than life, but not completely one-note (with the possible exception of the demolition expert); there's a great deal here that had me laughing out loud, and a lot that made me both think and blanch.

If you want a great caper book, a great heist book, this works entirely on that level as well. This is an enormous amount of fun, at a time when fun is in short supply. Also: it makes me think that Quantum as part of the title of a debut novel is a great sign.


*   *   *


Golden State by Ben H. Winters is, in theory, a standalone novel. It's a thought experiment novel, and the opening chapter had something in the narrative tone (it's a first person book) that made me think of Dudley Do-Right. Briefly: the Golden State is a city in which the inhabitants live by law of truth: the biggest crime in the city is the deliberate telling of a lie. There are men and women who can sense a lie—literally sense it, as if they have a superpower, and they are the only people who are allowed to speculate.

The America which existed before the cataclysm—the cause of which is unknown by the narrator, Laszlo Ratesic—was a world in which lies were not only accepted but expected, and truth so degraded that civilization destroyed itself. The Golden State means to prevent that from ever happening again.

I started this book pretty certain of where it was going. I thought it would be a book about the nature of lies, the context of them, the reason that some exist. I thought it would involve a growing acknowledgment on the part of Laszlo about all of these things: that it would be a kind of lesson on human nature, that it would carry a naive man through a coming of age, intellectually speaking, into a more complex world-view.

I was dead wrong.

The knowledge of the complexities is already inherent in Laszlo, and that knowledge unfolds—for the reader—as the book progresses. Laszlo is a religious man, and his religion is the importance of The Truth. The knowable truth. His father was a Speculator. His older brother was a Speculator who could sense a single, counterfeit bill in a wallet three blocks away. He followed in the footsteps of his family.

Anything I thought Laszlo could learn, he already knew.

A death happens. Laszlo, saddled with a raw new recruit, considers this a simple fall from a roof. But the partner pushes the things she considers anomalous. And those things lead him to, at last, speculate, which is dealing in non-facts. It is something only Speculators are legally allowed to do.

His sense that this is possibly a murder grows, and it becomes a very tangled mystery. Murder mysteries depend on lies, and in a world in which every lie is detected, they are not solved the normal way.

This is, in the end, a bleak book about human truths, with grace notes that lift it above despair. I am still thinking about it. And thinking about how it confounded expectations I felt it set up. As a dystopia, it approaches questions about absolutism from an unusual angle: that of the law enforcer. That of the person who truly believes that what he is doing, difficult costs and all, is worth doing because of what it protects. It's hard not to like Laszlo; hard not to sympathize and empathize with him. I didn't bother to try.

But it's a dystopia to the bone. On the surface, there's nothing subtle about this book, but in the end, the questions it poses are, to me, subtle in their context.


*   *   *


Ancestral Night, by Elizabeth Bear, is of the ancient-civilization-tech-with-no-ancient-civilization-to-man-it category of sf. Sometimes called Big Idea sf, it's one of the few that can invoke a sense of awe and wonder—a sense of the truly unknown, the distant echoes of which have power that is not categorizable. It's the same draw that ancient magics have in epic fantasies, at least for me: there is something wild and unknowable about them.

This book has the skeletal structure to invoke that—but fails to do so, at least for me, in all but one case: the first sighting of an alien, or rather, an alien's corpse, suspended in the white-space through which ships travel interstellar distances. There's something about the description, about the hush that corpse leaves in Haimey, the very chatty and very first person narrator of this novel.

Haimey is a practical, pragmatic person. She's had her legs re-engineered so that instead of feet, she has hands; she was born in space, and born to it. She hates gravity, hates crowds, dislikes even entering a space station because it has both. She works as an engineer on a salvager ship, a small tug, with a sentient AI she calls Singer (his actual legal identity is 657-2929-04), and a pilot named Connla, who I believe does have feet. Connla has no problems with crowds or gravity; he was born planet-side. He is far less chatty than Haimey, but they get along well, which is probably good, given everything.

They bid on the location of a lost ship, a set of co-ordinates in white space, and they traverse that space hoping to reach whatever it is those co-ordinates indicate before a rival bidder does; they need to pay the credits to keep the ship running. If they have a lucky run, Singer can finally pay down the last of his indenture, and be a free AI, with full rights. At the moment, there are things forbidden him without permission from those to whom he owes his existence.

I like Haimey. I like her voice. I like the practical, matter-of-fact way she views the universe in which she moves. And I think it's the voice—Bear has always been exceptionally good with voices—that causes the awe at Big Idea to fail for me—there's something about Haimey's reactions, and Haimey's context that's strong enough to draw me into Haimey's way of looking at the universe. Haimey can't be unknown and alien, and even things that are unknown and alien to Haimey are filtered through something that feels very down-to-earth and relatable.

This doesn't mean that there are no big ideas, that there is no larger sf information or society, though. It's just that Haimey uses all of the terminology—and all of the various explanations—in such an every-day, low-key way, they feel natural. If I parse sentences objectively, there is actually a lot of information in them that is entirely new and requires some thought—but it's hard to parse them outside of Haimey's tone.

Haimey and crew discover two things in white space: a derelict and an alien corpse. Haimey is sent to investigate the ship itself, because it's too large to pull into normal space with the tug they have.

There, she discovers a ship stripped clean of every possible hint that something was living and working in it, but simultaneously discovers tech that implies, strongly, that the ship is new. It is not long lost, alien tech; it's…alien tech that is new. Or new to Haimey. If that were all she'd discovered, they could pull in a fortune—but it's not. One: the ship was sabotaged. Two: some parasite or nanotech was left in the (now dead) trap, and Haimey has been infected. And three: The crew of this ship—all blown out into space—were involved in the murder of, and harvesting of, a sentient species.

The ship itself is therefore both a murder-scene and a criminal endeavor, empty or not. The Synarche, the Hegemony that contains multiple races from multiple galaxies, legal enforcement must be informed. They intend to take the derelict to the nearest dock—but they have a severe pirate problem. And Haimey has a parasite problem. These two things overlap in a fortuitous and unexpected way, and Singer and crew make their escape—but they've lost the ship itself, and with it, solid, physical proof. They do have the various surveillance information that's all but required of ships in space, but that's it.

How Haimey's early life, her origins, and her first head-over-heels relationship and its resultant scars, blend with the aforementioned parasite, murdered alien, and galactic Synarche forms the spine of the book, but it's Haimey's journey that's at its heart. Her uncertainties, her arguments with herself, her sense of right and wrong, and her sense of its nuances; her certainty that there are no perfect answers and no perfect solutions resting uneasily upon her own sense of guilt and loss as she struggles to reach that place in which she can accept who she is, who she was, and who she might become.

I really liked this book, just in case that wasn't obvious.


*   *   *


I both loved and did not like Dale Bailey's In the Night Wood. I love the writing. I loved the reading of each of his sentences. The book is an amalgamation of meta-textual hints and haunted houses and horror tropes, but those blend together with the house's new owner and her husband to create something that is greater than the sum of those parts.

Erin Hayden was a lawyer and the last living descendent of Caedmon Hollow. Caedmon Hollow was a novelist who wrote a book for children, called In the Night Wood. He was an eccentric who lived in a large, large manor; he was wealthy; he committed suicide some two years after the book saw publication.

Charles Hayden discovered that book in the library of his mother's estranged family on the day of his unknown grandfather's funeral. He stole it. And it followed him and his single mother around the country during many moves until he read it. It gave him nightmares.

He bumps into Erin at university, and they end up together, talking about that book, their childhoods—the type of things young people at university do. They get married. They have a child.

The child dies, and Erin inherits Hollow House, the ancestral home of Caedmon Hollow. And Charles talks her into moving there, because he needs information about Hollow, because he hopes to write a book about him that might earn him a place among academics again.

But the grief of the loss of Lissa, their daughter, has broken them both. Erin is withdrawn; she has no desire to meet people. No desire to break free from the spiral of grief itself. No desire, it seems to Charles, to live.

There's only pain, and ways of dulling pain, and Erin slides into those, attempting at first to hide them, until even the impulse to hide gives way. I will say now that Erin's viewpoint is, to me, an almost pitch-perfect depiction of profound clinical depression. And yes, this does not make for light reading.

It's not just Erin who's struggling. It's difficult to be married to someone so profoundly withdrawn. But Charles is, himself, withdrawing. He is determined that this will be a new start, a new beginning—the new beginning both he and Erin need.

It becomes clear as the book progresses that he has no idea what that actually means. His New Beginning means a refusal to look at, to talk about, the past—at all. Because for Charles Hayden, the past is layered in so much guilt it will obliterate him if he acknowledges it.

The book draws toward that obliteration as the pages fly past.

But the book also unwraps the mystery that is Caedmon Hollow and Caedmon Hollow's suicide; it touches upon the strangeness of the ancient woods that gird the manor beyond the walls. It falls from fantasy and guilt into fantasy and horror, and the guilt and the horror are overlapped and combined.

Throughout the book, Bailey shifts from Erin's view to Charles's view effortlessly. Both worked for me; both were entirely believable. It's only at the end, when the magic itself is laid bare and the darkness made explicit, that Charles becomes the only viewpoint—and I think, structurally, the weight of the end would have worked better for me if he had continued to contain Erin's point of view, Erin's actual vision.

As I said: I loved reading this book. I loved almost everything about it. I wanted to stab Charles in the eye toward the end, though.

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