Thrilling through Space & Time: Dark Matter & The Gone World

By Khaleel G.

As a genre, science fiction can be daunting to new readers. For some, the size of the books can threaten one’s attention span and bookbag; for others, the density of the language, with strange technical terms and invented rules, can be as repelling as a tractor beam in reverse. 

But fear not, gentle reader! Sci-fi is such an incredibly wide field, with myriad sub-genres within it, that there’s a story for any reader. I’d like to highlight two novels, both of which deal in the manipulation of time and space, but with enough flavor, tone, and character writing to carry you all the way to the final page.

The book cover shows the lettering of the title and author's name in black lettering, overlapping themselves several times, against a red background.



Dark Matter by Blake Crouch seems initially like a crime thriller. Jason Dessen is on his way home from work, through the streets of Chicago, when he’s abducted by a stranger, who asks him, “Are you happy in your life?” After being knocked unconscious, he awakens, surrounded by strangers, all welcoming him back into a life he never lived. 

Any adult has those idle moments, wondering about what might’ve been – if they’d taken that job, or if they’d stayed with that person, or if they’d had the chicken instead of the fish at that one dinner, that one time. For Jason, that train of thought becomes real and absolutely alien. In short order, he realizes that this is a parallel world to his own, where he made a slightly different choice in careers…which resulted in his alternate self creating dimension-hopping technology. No biggie!

Worse yet, in this world, Jason didn’t marry his wife, and they didn’t have their child. Once these stakes are established, the novel fully becomes a thriller, as Jason struggles against the forces of man and physics to get back to his world and family.

The story bounces between worlds upon worlds, Jasons upon Jasons, but we never lose the plot’s thread. The mechanics of parallel worlds are clearly established, and the rules are not confusing.  By the end of the book, those rules have been pushed to their limits, but the pace and tension of the plot kept me engaged, absorbing the science-y bits alongside the emotional ones. The intertwining of those two strands – the emotional and the scientific – was so effective, I read this book in two sittings. It is THAT captivating!


On the other end of the space-time continuum, The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch explores time travel, but differently than other related tales like Back to the Future. Back in the 80s, a secret division of the US Navy discovered time travel, using it to explore and discover new futures. The book properly begins, though, in 1997, as Shannon Moss is working for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. A Navy SEAL’s family has been murdered in West Virginia, and a girl has gone missing. What seems like a heinous but human crime is revealed to be much more, as Moss investigates ’97 and years, and decades, beyond.

The picture is of actor Michael J. Fox in his role as Marty McFly in the film Back to the Future, wearing a red puffy vest and collared denim shirt, with wide eyes indicating shock or surprise.
This book doesn’t play by Back to the Future rules…


The Navy’s time travel system doesn’t operate by popular rules, like Marty McFly’s “go back to 1950 to make sure your parents meet” sort. Instead, a person is sent only into the future, from that particular and exact moment in time. The future they experience is a sort of bubble, one in which all events played out exactly as they were set up at that moment of the time traveler’s departure. If this sounds confusing, rest assured that Sweterlitsch explains it far better than I. Like Dark Matter, the book lowers you slowly into the science, letting the human drama lead the pace.

In practice, time travel allows Moss to jump decades into West Virginia’s future, when neighbors and witnesses are more amenable to talk about this old, grisly murder. It also means that Moss can see how the world changed in her absence, as her family and friends think she simply disappeared. Astoundingly, the story takes place almost entirely within West Virginia and surrounding areas, as Moss bounces between 1997 and various points in the future; this grounds the story in a gritty reality of detectives, seedy motels, and criminal hideouts, not unlike its genre sibling, True Detective.

Did I mention there’s also this looming apocalypse in the future, called “the Terminus?” And in every possible future the Navy’s travelers go to, it’s still there, destroying Earth – and with each time travel leap, it seems to be arriving sooner? So while the main thrust of the plot has roots in Appalachia and crime fiction, there is still Deep Time, lost Navy starships, bizarre future evolutions of mankind, amid moments of time itself bending and cracking – all under this looming, seemingly inevitable threat.

Sweterlitsch combines snappy character writing, attention to detail, and readable action sequences to make this rather thick book into a page-turner, one that kept me up deep into the night to get to the next twist. It is a mix of grisly murders, police procedural, and cosmic horror – and I haven’t read anything quite like it elsewhere.

The book cover shows an icy landscape at night, with frozen trees and stars against a deep blue night sky.

The Gone World is smart and complicated, while also a non-stop thrill ride; its finale left me (as all my favorite books do) suddenly returned to my own body, yet my mind refused to stop and leave the story. Over the next few days, I would return to re-read sections, and I’m contemplating another read very soon (perhaps the audiobook from Overdrive?). 

And that’s the magic of great sci-fi!  The story can be about space armadas, alien princesses, time travel, or dimension-hopping – it doesn’t matter, as long as the author can wholly transport the reader into a world that’s different, but still human. As long as it leaves you in a state of wonder.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch are available in print from HCLS, and in eBook (Dark Matter | The Gone World) and eAudiobook (Dark Matter | The Gone World) from Libby/Overdrive. Dark Matter is also available in CD audiobook from HCLS

Khaleel has worked at the Miller Branch since 2015, though he’s been back and forth between HCLS and high school, college, and graduate school since 2003.

A New Universe of Sci-Fi: Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem (and sequels)

A mostly blue background shows a pyramid, mysterious objects floating in the sky and in front of the pyramid. A lone human figures appears small in the foreground.

by Khaleel G.

When one picks up a science fiction titles from our shelves, there’s a good chance that author will hail from the US or UK. Their stories, however wild and imaginative they might be, will still have roots in English-speaking literature, with all its tropes and customs, characterizations and particularities. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but one must wonder – how do writers from abroad imagine the future, or space travel, or alien life? If England can produce an author of such wide-ranging influence as Arthur C. Clarke, what speculative fiction might be borne out of Russian experiences? Or Nigerian? What possible futures have international authors imagined?

Cixin Liu is a Chinese author who has received massive acclaim in his own country. Yet only recently, several of his novels have been translated into English, including his most popular series, Remembrance of Earth’s Past. Consisting of three hefty tomes, its story pushed my mind as far as science fiction allows, in a way few other books have done.

While the story bounds about the 20th century and different countries, we follow Wang in his investigation, leading him to a popular and mysterious virtual reality game. Called “Three Body,” players enter into an open plain, accompanied by digital avatars of famous scientists. In the sky above, the sun disappears or multiplies, seemingly at random, resulting in the player freezing or burning to death, then having to start all over. Wang has to puzzle out this video game amid all the political and scientific intrigue, as it may hold the key to the cause of all these events.

To say anymore would spoil the reveals Liu builds over the first book, and throughout the following two sequels. But the translation by Chinese-American author Ken Liu (a wonderful speculative fiction writer in his own right) delivers the plot in clear, steady language. If the above paragraphs made this seem unwieldy and convoluted, do not worry – for as wide as the narrative goes through the cosmos and time and space, alongside characters of various national origins, the books never feel impossible to progress through. Like other sci-fi authors I’ve written about, Cixin Liu takes the time to let the reader absorb the world, understand its rules, and thusly be prepared for the twists and turns of the plot.

That being said, if I had one criticism of the series, it’s that the characters don’t have a whole lot of progression or development. Indeed, outside of Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, I had a hard time recalling any one character, or even their name. Yet, at the same time, the books still work as fiction. See, the focus isn’t on individuals; humanity itself is the protagonist, and the laws of physics, the cosmos, the nature of sentient life serve as co-stars and antagonists. I never would have thought I could be captivated by a description of microphysics, but in one scene, an atom is “unfolded” to a gargantuan size, then shrunk back down; it sounds technical to describe here, but the reader’s experience in the moment is awesome, the true meaning of “invoking awe.”

Throughout the books, that sense of amazement is always around the corner, shocking me at with the scope and scale of events. Again, without spoiling anything, this series goes further and wilder than any other sci-fi novel or series I’ve read, to a finale beyond imagination. I have re-read the last fifty pages of the final book, Death’s End, on a few occasions since I first finished it, yet each time, it creates this vertigo-inducing wonder in me, a near-physical sensation in my gut, like falling into the wide open ocean. Like, how can this be?

The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End sit amid the titans of sci-fi literature, with a viewpoint and flavor all their own. Their popularity has inspired film and upcoming TV adaptations, and pushed Chinese sci-fi into the mainstream of American publishing. Liu has other works in our collection, as do more Chinese authors. Science fiction always seeks to expand the reader’s mind, and with more diverse authors in the mix, our minds can only get wider and wilder and weirder. And I welcome the prospect!

The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End are available in print from HCLS, and in digital eBook and eAudiobook from Libby/Overdrive. We also have Cixin Liu’s works in his native language

Dune by Frank Herbert

Orange and yellow waves of color suggest sand dunes. Title appears in bright white type vertically in the center, with a silhouetted figure within the "U". A black space sky is across the top, with stars.

By Eric L.

There has been quite a lot of buzz concerning the new Dune film, especially since with the new trailers being released. Frankly I’m a bit excited, too, although the theatre release has been delayed repeatedly (now scheduled for Oct 22, 2021). However, I can’t say that I’m a Dune fan from way back, since I had never read any of the 18 books in the series until recently.  

I host the HCLS book discussion group Read. Think. Talk. on the first Monday of the month. More often than not, we read and discuss classic, social, and philosophical sci-fi. Several members of the group wanted to read Dune (the original). Although I had a desire to read it, and with the new movie and an HBO series on the way, it seemed like a great time to familiarize myself with the source material. However, I was a bit reluctant, as it’s not a great idea to suggest a 600-plus page book, with three appendices and a glossary of terms, for a book discussion group. Moreover, I’ll concede I’m still a bit intimidated by long books!  

The plot centers around young Paul Atreides whose world is upturned when his family/house must relocate to the desert planet Arrakis, colloquially called Dune. A rival house, Harkonnen, was governing Dune and wants to wrest back control because of the planet’s valuable natural resource melange (also called spice). House Atreides is the more admirable of the two rival houses for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the Harkonnen leader is a despicable person.

Melange enables interplanetary travel both via the pilot and as a fuel. It possesses a psychedelic effect, and people also ingest it as a mind-altering substance. Melange is only found in the sands of Dune, and harvesting it is a very dangerous endeavor because of the giant sandworms (the worms were really all I knew about Dune). The indigenous Fremen are the only folks who are able to survive in the desert with its extreme climate and dearth of water. 

Paul has an interest in the Fremen from the outset, even before a series of events place him in contact with them. I don’t want give away too many details concerning the drama and intrigue that lead to House Atreides losing control of the planet, but they make for a good read. The Fremen believe Paul to be their chosen leader and they have a common interest in defeating the Harkonnens.

This sort of story should all seem familiar, with revenge, an oppressive greedy regime, and the oft-repeated white male savior trope. However, Dune has some interesting differences. Paul is accompanied on his journey by his mother, Jessica, the unmarried concubine of his father and a member of the “Bene Gesserit.” One of the shadowy organization’s key tenets is controlling one’s thoughts to control how the body reacts. The members are taught to hone their intellect and possess the ability to persuade people using their words. They are not popular in the largely patriarchal society and are often and pejoratively referred to as “witches.” Jessica, against the rules of the Bene Gesserit, taught young Paul their ways. This skill set is the reason that some of the Fremen think he may fulfill their prophecy. 

There are interesting power dynamics between Jessica and Paul, their feelings about each other, and how individual goals change throughout the story. Other strong female characters exist as well, including Paul’s love interest. Author Frank Herbert was apparently also interested in Zen and peyote, and the book is very much a product of the late 1960s. It is undeniably long but moves quickly. The action scenes are not drawn out, in fact I found their brevity interesting. I liked that the political buildup was described more, which seems closer to reality to me. 

Dune has drama, intriguing characters, some philosophical issues, and an interesting environmental message. I half-read the appendices but found them rather dry without getting a feel for the characters first. That’s just me; perhaps you may like to have a complete understanding of the “world” before getting into the story. 

On the continuum of science fiction and fantasy (if there is one), I lean to the former. I’d argue this is more fantasy, although it’s debatable. At any rate, the book contains new words, lots of new names, worlds, and families, all of which are difficult to pronounce. This is a book that’s worth your time and great source material for a film. The new film will tell the story in two parts, unlike the 1984 David Lynch film, which is an interesting story in and of itself (I’d recommend it). 

In sum, one can get lost in another world and time in this book, and perhaps it’s nice to take a respite from current affairs for a bit. 

While you have to reserve the book right now because others are enjoying all of our copies, it is worth the wait to read. Also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/Overdrive.

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.

Everyone Has a Flavor

A figure in a yellow top and blue pants appears in front of Earth. The "O" in Space Boy looks like a big white oval.

“In space, the stars don’t twinkle. Apparently, twinkling only happens when you look at the stars through the atmosphere of a planet.

Oliver

For months I had noticed the Space Boy series by Stephen McCranie on the graphic novel shelves, and while it looked interesting, I never picked it up. That all changed a couple of weeks ago when I decided to check out book one and there it was: that moment when you start reading and wonder “why in the world didn’t I read this sooner?” I was hooked. And ultimately glad I had waited, because by now I had eight volumes to catch up on and I wouldn’t have to wait for more…at that immediate moment that is.

Book one starts out with a short introduction to Oliver, a boy who is filled with emotion and yearns to express it, yet is confined to what he calls the Nothing. There is immense loneliness in his opening thoughts, and we come to experience that the Nothing has taken almost everything away from him. Things shift to Amy, a young girl living on a mining colony in deep space. The colony is all she knows, but when her father is fired there comes the biggest change: they must move back to Earth. Leaving behind her home, her friends, and her life, Amy and her family are essentially shipped to Earth on a transport in cryogenic suspension. Thirty years pass by the time she reaches Earth and the implications soon hit her. Life has moved on and so has Jemmah and her other friends. Starting anew on a new planet, a new home, and a new school, Amy begins to acclimate to her environment. She makes new friends and starts to adjust. But along the way she meets Oliver, a boy with no flavor. See, she has the ability to identify another person’s flavor by looking at them. But with Oliver there is no flavor until she finally glimpses something through his stoic and expressionless exterior. There’s got to be more to him, and boy is there ever!

At this point I was hooked. The mystery, intrigue, and space exploration drew upon my love of space opera and I found myself devouring volume upon volume along with what was available to read on WebToons. Finally, there was no more and I fell upon that age-old waiting game. Subsequent volumes expand on the mystery behind Oliver, the secret organization that is pulling all the strings, and just what awaits out in space.

You can find volumes 1 – 10 available to reserve and checkout through the Howard County Library System website.

Peter is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the Miller Branch and has entirely too many books on his to-read list.

Found Family in Speculative Fiction

By Kristen B.

There’s an old saying that while you can’t choose your family, it’s lucky that you can choose your friends. Some of my favorite stories include found family, where the characters forge tight bonds that go beyond simple friendship into family feeling. These are often the books that live on my comfort reads shelf. It’s also one of the oldest tropes in existence: the band of brothers (or maybe just the band) who live and die for each other. If it can’t actually save the world, friendship can at least make it a better place.

This mostly brown cover features a planet in the background and a chunky spaceship in the front. The title appears in shaded block letters which gradually increase in size.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive)

This is the book I hand to people who tell me they don’t really like science fiction, but want to try something new. If you ever enjoyed the show Firefly, this novel will feel familiar. Set on an older, slightly beat-up spaceship, the crew represents a wide range of galactic species who pull together as a team, a ragtag group of political and social misfits. The fairly minimal plot focuses on the need to push a new wormhole/jump, which means that one ship has to take the slow voyage to anchor the jump points. It may sound tedious but it’s never boring with all that time to get to know the quirky crew of the Wayfarer. Two of my favorites are the pacifist chef who comes from a species that essentially committed self-genocide through endless war, and Lovey (short for Lovelace), who is the ship’s AI. While not so heavy on forward action, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet provides an interconnected set of character studies that leaves you feeling more than a little warm and fuzzy.

A blue cover with an image of Jupiter in the background features a flotilla of different spaceships framing the title across the middle of the image.

A Pale Light in the Black by K. B. Wagers

Some of the most enduring found family stories tell about military outfits whose bonds are stronger than blood – kinda like the A-Team. Meet Max and Jenks, officers (commissioned and non-com, respectively) on the NEO-G ship Zuma’s Ghost. A sort of space-based Coast Guard, NEO-G (Near-Earth Orbital Guard) Interceptor teams run counter-smuggling interdiction operations and rescue missions. Max has recently joined Zuma’s Ghost, after Jenks’ brother is promoted off the ship. Part of the story revolves around Max and Jenks finding a good working relationship during various military actions. Part of the story concerns the Boarding Games annual competition, which happens among teams from all military service branches and which Zuma’s Ghost just missed winning the previous year. Jenks is the all-time champion cage fighter, and Max, navigator extraordinaire, is still discovering what skills she contributes to the team. Underlying all this surface fun, something more sinister lurks that threatens Max, Jenks, and all of Earth. This book rolls with a ton of space opera fun, hitting all the beats you expect and some you don’t. It’s also one of the most inclusive set of characters ever thrown together to save the solar system!

A woman kneels upon a beach gesturing with her right hand toward a flat sea, with symbols traced on the sand beneath her. The palette is muted beiges and blues.

Winter Tide by Ruthanne Emrys (also available as an eBook from Libby/OverDrive)

I must admit to avoiding this title for longer than I should have given its association with the Lovecraft mythos. Lovecraft’s opinions and bigotry have not stood the test of time well, and I was a little apprehensive about diving into the deeps with a Cthulu-inspired novel. How wrong I was! Emrys reconstructs the Lovecraftian milieu into a family saga that demands empathy for the Other. Set in Innsmouth along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, down the road from Miskatonic University (home to lots of unhelpful white men), Aphra Marsh and her brother Caleb look to reclaim their heritage that was stolen when the government interred her people away from the sea in the desert. The Innsmouth community comes from People of the Water (as opposed to Air or Earth), who eventually leave dry land and evolve to live as Deep Ones in the sea. Aphra needs to find trusted friends and colleagues to re-establish a home at Innsmouth before developers demolish what little remains and to reclaim her people’s heritage from the dim reaches of the university’s library. This quiet, personal novel focuses on staying true to yourself and trusting others who travel the path with you – even if one of them happens to be an FBI agent.

A face with long ears peeks over the bottom of the cover wearing a crown shaped liked a palace.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (also available as an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive)

Do you love pauper to prince stories? Heroes that go from the kitchen or the farm to the throne? Me too! Half-elf, half-goblin Maya grew up in almost total isolation after the death of his mother, living in a remote marshy estate with an equally outcast, abusive tutor. His father, the Emperor of Elfland, had come to regret his political marriage, exiling Maya and his mother from court. This book opens with Maya receiving news that he is the only remaining legitimate heir after his father and older brothers are killed in a terrible accident. Promising himself to be true to his mother’s precepts of kindness and generosity, Maya tries to maneuver in an imperial court for which he has no frame of reference or requisite education. He makes his way tentatively toward a previously unimaginable royal future, grounded in the adamant idea that he will not continue the cycle of abuse levied against him. Along the way and despite assassination attempts, he finds kindred spirits – helpful councilors, his maternal grandfather (who rules the goblin empire), long-lost aunts and sisters, and devoted bodyguards – to ease the burden of royal privilege and deference. I love this book to pieces, and it only improves with re-reading. The language can be a little dense at first, but stick with it and you will be greatly rewarded with a story of courtly politics and the power of kindness.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and take walks in the park.

Reading Ursula K. Le Guin

The cover of "The Left Hand of Darkness" depicts a lunar-like surface with two opposite-facing profiles carved out of rock, against a dark sky.

By Eric L.

I read a lot of great authors, but that’s because I read great books! As we have been celebrating Women’s History Month, and HCLS has recommended a cornucopia of great material about and by women, I’d like to recommend the amazing Ursula K. Le Guin. 

Le Guin made a name for herself in the male-dominated world of sci-fi and fantasy half a century ago, and she wrote a great book about gender fluidity way before many others broached the topic. Le Guin said she recognized the ability to tell complex tales through the work of genre writer Philip K. Dick. Later, she openly criticized the way he wrote some female characters. Dick agreed, they became friends, and he thanked Le Guin for her influence on his subsequent works. I’d contend that in itself amounts to progress! 

A great starting point for Ursula K. Le Guin is watching Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin on Kanopy. It provides a great introduction to the writer and her work. The interviews with the witty and charming Le Guin are terrific, as are the conversations with Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman and others about her influence on their writing and the genre. Gaiman astutely points out that the Harry Potter series owes a great deal to Le Guin’s Earthsea series.  

As I alluded to before, her most famous work The Left Hand of Darkness (also available in eBook and eAudiobook format) is a groundbreaking work, not just for the sci-fi/fantasy genre, but also for challenging our conceptions pf western masculinity and of western masculinity and femininity in a clever and subtle way. The protagonist, an envoy to the planet nicknamed Winter, struggles to understand a gender-neutral people using the social constructs of his own culture. Left Hand centers political intrigue and a forced epic journey across an icy planet while giving glimpses at the envoy’s gradual enlightenment. The drama and action of an arduous journey mirrors the personal journey of the protagonist and the relationships he builds.  

The Left Hand of Darkness is worth borrowing just to read Le Guin’s amazing introduction concerning science fiction and writing in general. Over the years, she has taken criticism for using the pronoun “he” for the gender-neutral characters in the book. To which she replied that just because the book was finished, it didn’t mean she was finished learning. I like this sort of thinking, the idea that we can all grow more and move forward. 

The cover for The Dispossessed depicts a man standing on a barren wasteland, looking towards another purple-toned planet with the sun peeking over its edge from behind, and a red-orange sky.

Le Guin’s other popular work The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia may be the perfect book for now, as the story of two opposing political views on how best to organize a society – collectivism versus individualism. The book examines power and extremes, and interrogates the best way for a society to temper those impulses. 

The protagonist Shevek (all names are computer generated) is a scientist from the anarchist commune-like planet, Anarres. Against the wishes of many of his people, he takes the opportunity to collaborate with the scientists of A-lo, on the planet Urras. The latter is a more individualistic, capitalist society. Shevek is attracted to the opportunity to further pursue his work, as he has begun to suspect that his society has some faults. Le Guin uses the protagonist’s perspective and experience to compare the two societies. The chapters alternate between Shevek’s youth and adulthood on Anarres and his present situation in A-lo. I thought this a clever technique, in a sort of nuanced compare and contrast story, but perhaps that’s just my conflicted mind? 

I believe Le Guin’s biases are evident, perhaps intentionally, but the book offers a provocative look at entrenched beliefs. The two societies are located on different planets and only know each other via their society’s own information (sometimes called propaganda), very similar to the way each of us arrives at our perspectives, beliefs, and, yes, biases. Le Guin cleverly has each society colloquially reduce the other to one-word epithets; the “propertarians” and “anarchists.” It’s certainly easier to believe we understand each other when we reduce ourselves to singular adjectives. 

This would be a great book to have people with opposing viewpoints read and discuss. The fact that Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist is evident in her work. Lastly, I’m inclined to conclude that Ursula K. Le Guin believes any thoughtful ideology should begin with a deeper understanding of each other and the forces that create fear and hate. 

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS Elkridge Branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside, and people.  

Listening List: Six science fiction novels with great audiobooks

By Becky W.

I love listening to audiobooks. Anytime I have the option to occupy my ears (driving, washing dishes, mowing the lawn), you can be sure an audiobook is playing in the background. Despite all the benefits of audiobooks, sometimes when we finally get a book that’s been on hold for six weeks – we are disappointed to discover that we can’t relate to the narrator. A narrator can make or break our impression of a title. While we all have different preferences as to how a book is read, here a few audiobooks that, I feel, enhance their novel’s stories.

Bonus tip: to avoid those long waits only to return the book after five minutes of listening, try the “Play Sample” feature on Libby for a short preview of the narration.

The background is a solid bright green, with the illustration of a head wrapped in cord or wire. Where goggle would appear, the text "neuromancer" is repeated in black letters on white.

Neuromancer by William Gibson 
Read by: Robertson Dean 
Available through: Overdrive/Libby 

If you are science fiction fan, you have probably run across William Gibson’s Neuromancer. We first meet Case, an ex-computer hacker, in Chiba City, Japan – broke, drug addicted, and at rock bottom. After stealing from his former employer, Case is injected with a toxin, damaging his central nervous system and leaving him unable to access the virtual reality database known as the Matrix. He lands himself on the hit list of Wage, an infamous drug lord. On the verge of suicide, Case meets Molly, a cyborg working for a mysterious hacker, Armitage. Armitage agrees to help Case heal and regain access to the Matrix in exchange for his services as a hacker. Desperate, Case accepts the trade, not knowing Armitage’s motives or what services he must provide. 

Why choose the audiobook?

If you have not read Neuromancer (or if it’s time for a re-read), I highly suggest listening to the audiobook. Written from the perspective of Case, Dean’s spot-on embodiment of the character, along with his ability to shift into other unique and relatable characters, adds another level to this already iconic story.  

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Read by: Jon Lindstrom
Available through: Overdrive/Libby, Cloud Library, Audiobook on CD 

If you are new to science fiction (i.e., not quite ready to tackle the intricacies of the Dune universe), Dark Matter provides an excellent place to start. If, however, you are a science fiction boss… you should still read Dark Matter. Is there a little bit of plot hole time magic? Yes, but look past it – it’s worth it. The story is told from the perspective of Jason Dessen, a college physics professor. On his way home, Jason is approached by a man he presumes to be a mugger. In an instant, Jason finds himself abducted, drugged, and waking up in a world that is not his own. 

Why choose the audiobook?

I originally began this as a printed book, but switched to audiobook. Though the story quickly grabs your attention, Crouch’s use of fragmented sentences and one-line paragraphs makes this a clunky read. After starting in on the audiobook, I was able to experience these fragments as they were intended, as the sporadic thoughts of an abducted man. 

3. Sphere by Michael Crichton
Read by: Scott Brick
Available through: Playaway (what is a Playaway?) 

While Michael Crichton is best known for Jurassic Park (a must read and must watch), he has a huge body of work that contains some of my favorite sci-fi reads. Sphere follows psychologist Norman Johnson and a team of other scientists who are recruited by the US Navy to explore a foreign spacecraft discovered at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. After gaining access to the ship, the team encounters an alien intelligence named Jerry. Communicating through a large sphere found on the ship, Jerry exhibits a child-like and temperamental demeanor that sparks an interest in Johnson. After unexplainable events start to threaten the team’s safety, Johnson becomes desperate to understand Jerry and explain the phenomena taking place around him.

Why choose the audiobook? 

While technically science fiction, Sphere is also a psychological thriller. As Johnson dives deeper into Jerry’s thoughts, the reader constantly questions who is in control of the conversation. Brick’s narration enhances the suspense, so much so that it is worth reaching for the audiobook. 

Lange blocky letters spell out titles and authors. For first book, letters appear against an urban apartment block. For the second, it's blue letters on a black cover.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Read by: Wil Wheaton
Available through: OverDrive/Libby, Cloud Library, Audiobook on CD

I know, I know, I’m late to the game on this one. Honestly, when this book first came out, the virtual reality video game setting just didn’t spark my interest. But with the release of sequel Ready Player Two, I decided to give it a try… and it was definitely worth it. The story follows eighteen-year-old Wade Watts who spends the majority of his time in the global virtual reality network known as the Oasis. The late Oasis creator, James Halliday, left his enormous fortune to any person who could solve the puzzle he hid within his creation. Wade, like many other “gunters,” has dedicated his entire life to learning everything about 80s–obsessed Halliday and winning his fortune. 

Why choose the audiobook? 

This book is just fun to listen to. I am definitely not a gamer, but the intensity in the narration of this book made me feel as if I were behind the controller. I am not sure if I would have developed the same level of excitement and suspense in the narration of this book if reading a printed copy. Oh, did I mention, it’s read by Wil Wheaton… why wouldn’t you choose the audiobook!  

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
Read by: Andy Secombe, Eric Meyers, Laurel Lefkow, Charlie Anson, Liza Ross, William Hope, Christoper Ragland, Katharine Mangold, Adna Sablyich
Available through: OverDrive/Libby

This story opens with eleven-year-old Rose Franklin falling from her new bike into what seems like the center of the earth. When Rose’s fall is broken, she finds herself in the cradled of a giant mechanical hand. Seventeen years later, the mystery of the buried artifact remains, and Rose, now a physicist, is consumed with solving it. The story unfolds as a series of question and answers conducted by an unidentified interviewer. The unnamed man attempts to reveal the mystery of the artifact through the accounts of Rose and her team, all of whom have had encounters with parts of the artifact. 

Why choose the audiobook? 

Neuvel’s question-and-answer structure lends itself very well to audio. While listening to this story, I really did find myself duped into feeling as if I was listening to an archive of interview tapes, investigating the mystery for myself. 

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
Read by: Kristen Sieh, Hank Green
Available through: OverDrive/Libby

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavour by Hank Green (sequel)
Read by: Kristen Sieh, Joe Hempel, Jesse Vilinsky, Nicole Lewis, Kevin R. Free, Hank Green, Robert Petkoff, Angelo Di Loreto, Oliver Wyman, Hillary Huber, P.J. Ochlan, Gabra Zackman
Available through: OverDrive/Libby

Hank Green and his brother John Green (author of The Fault in Our Stars) have made names for themselves, via writing and their YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, along with other online content. Throughout An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Green examines our newfound concept of internet fame while also delivering a funny, thrilling, and engaging science fiction story. While I have had opinions on this topic, I am not an internet celebrity (in case you were wondering). So, I was really interested to learn how Green (who has a lot of experience with internet fame) tackles this subject.  

This two-book series follows April May, a twenty-something living in New York City. When April finds what she believes to be a Banksy-inspired art installation, April and her friend, Andy, decide to create a YouTube video to introduce the giant robot sculpture (dubbed “Carl”) to the rest of the city. When a total of sixty-four Carl statues appear simultaneously all over the globe, April finds herself in the spotlight. 

Why choose the audiobook? 

While I definitely would recommend listening to both of these novels, the audio production of  A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor knocks it out of the park. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is written from the perspective of April, while the sequel switches perspectives among the core group of characters. I was already familiar with the characters from the first book, but I had doubts about relating to them if they were read by different narrators. I was extremely impressed with the attention taken in choosing the narrators for this book, and how well they embodied each of the characters.  

Becky is an Instructor and Research Specialist at the HCLS East Columbia Branch who enjoys art and everything science.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The background is deep blue with geometric drawing, against which a group of women are silhouetted in black.

Review by Kristen B.

I know we all feel like we’re living in a disaster movie or dystopian novel (ok, maybe it’s just me), but sometimes misery loves company. Particularly, when it comes with a good dash of ingenuity and a lot of hope in humanity’s ability to solve big problems.

At the beginning of The Calculating Stars, a meteorite strikes Earth at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay (basically right here), leaving ruin in its wake. Given this extinction-level event, Earth will become unlivable for humans within a century. The book takes place in the 1950s, as the space race has just begun. Now, it takes on a whole new level of importance as colonizing the moon, and maybe even Mars, appears to be our only hope for survival. The book is full of all the fascinating trials and testing required to put men on the moon.

Not just men. Emma York, Ph.D. mathematician and ace pilot (and baker of pies), is our point of view character. She and her fellow female pilots become part of the cutting-edge cadre of astronauts, because, as she argues, it makes no sense to send ONLY men for the future survival of the race…even Noah understood the principle behind two-by-two. For all of her smarts and derring-do, Emma suffers from fairly severe anxiety driven by perfectionism. The novel addresses both the need and the stigma of treating mental/emotional issues. Emma’s anxiety serves to complicate her fraught relationship with the program’s lead astronaut, a devoted chauvinist.

Kowal doesn’t shy away from the other pressing issues of the times – particularly racism. Black pilots face even more discrimination than female ones, and Black women receive the worst treatment (of no real surprise). Each chapter opens with a news clipping, many of which show the bigger societal picture, and it’s not entirely pretty. The debate rages about who goes to the lunar colony, including mention of fringe factions with all their many conspiracy theories.

As I noted above, there’s also hope and ingenuity and that feeling of “Yes, We Can.” For every setback, there’s a jump forward. For every human foible, there’s a shining example of people at their absolute best. We tackle the hard problems … because we must! I loved this book for its honesty and its hopefulness, and mostly for how Kowal wove them together. If you loved Hidden Figures, you will probably enjoy this.

The story continues with the mission to Mars in The Fated Sky, and a brand-new book, The Relentless Moon, takes a closer look at the trials facing the new colony. The Calculating Stars is also available as an ebook from Overdrive/Libby.

Kristen B. has worked for HCLS for more than 15 years, and currently hosts the Books on Tap discussion group at Hysteria Brewing Company. She loves reading, Orioles baseball, and baking.

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

The cover shows a dark background with the title and author's name in slate blue graphics. The letters look like they are dissolving into stars, with the dark background as outer space.

By Eric L.

Ted Chiang is not only a writer, he’s a computer scientist who is employed as a technical writer, as far as I know. This is Chiang’s second short story collection (a story from his previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Otherswas adapted into the movie Arrival). 

Frankly, I was rather surprised that Exhalation was selected by The New York Times Book Review as one of the best fictional books of 2019, but it’s well deserved. That said, I’d implore you to give this collection a read even you’re not into sci-fi. These stories, like all great science fiction, are only superficially about science and the future.  

Although Chiang alludes to the technical aspects of whatever he’s describing, it’s all just the backdrop. Like all the great sci-fi writers, he uses imagined technological advancements of the future as the setting to tell beautiful existential tales. His stories concern how societies employ technology and, subsequently, how it changes individuals in profound ways.

There is a story about “raising” a computer program/avatar that not only interacts in virtual reality, but also actual reality. One story concerns a rigid time travel portal; another is about the perils of a robot nanny; an interesting one is about a mechanism attached to the eye that can record every moment (you can share the footage with your friends). My favorite features a machine that gives users the ability to communicate with a version of themselves that has made different life choices. 

I hope these descriptions will not scare readers away. It seems odd to even contemplate how rapid technological advancement could not change us. Some of the stories are better than others but they’re all worth a read, and I don’t think they’re overly melancholy. Recurring themes include acceptance, free will, masculinity, and control.  

I find Chiang’s work similar to that of Philip K. Dick. Chiang even describes how one of the stories included was inspired by an old Dick short story. Although I wanted to interpret the stories myself, I couldn’t resist reading the story notes at the end of the collection.

Special thanks to my book discussion group for helping me think through some of these ideas through a conversation over the internet.

Exhalation is also available as an eaudiobook through OverDrive/Libby and CloudLibrary, and as an ebook through OverDrive/Libby

Eric is a DIY Instructor and Research Specialist at the Elkridge branch. He enjoys reading, films, music, doing nearly anything outside and people.