Neal Stephenson has teamed up with novelist Nicole Galland to create “The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.” (William Morrow, 750 pp., $35), a sprawling mix of science fiction and fantasy. In this historical novel, linguist Melisande Stokes has a chance meeting with a handsome military intelligence officer named Tristan Lyons, who offers her a chance to escape a smug supervisor at Harvard for a research project on magic and its disappearance. Quickly the stakes rise, as Melisande and her friends stumble upon warring politics, ambitions and agendas. Clocking in at more than 700 pages, the book is entirely composed of correspondence: letters, chat logs and redacted government documents. This unusual format allows the authors to create distinct voices for endearing characters, defining them without getting bogged down in back story, and making more room to explore relationships and describe, in painstaking detail, the “science” of magic and time travel. Better yet, Melisande trades one bureaucracy for another to prescient and hilarious effect. There’s a lot going on here — stylistic flourishes, comedic pratfalls, romance and science — but it’s handled deftly. Those familiar with Stephenson (“Snow Crash,” “Anathem,” “Seveneves”) will recognize his humor and ideas, while Galland (“Stepdog,” “Crossed,” “Revenge of the Rose”) brings a fresh and irresistible voice to this ambitious novel.
David Burr Gerrard’s new novel, “The Epiphany Machine” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 418 pp., $27), is hilarious. It’s a razor-sharp alternate history that imagines the United States — mainly New York — shaped by a mysterious piece of technology. This odd sewing-machine-like device tattoos a short, pithy truth on each person’s arm. These tattoos have inspired history-changing events, including John Lennon’s songs and his assassination. The novel includes excerpts from other books and interviews with those tattooed or affected by the machine. But it’s mainly the memoir of Venter Lowood, whose entire life has been defined by the Epiphany Machine. His parents were once in the inner circle of a cult, but his mother abandoned him due to a revelation from her tattoo. Venter spends the novel trying to find meaning in his life, all in defiance of the phrase emblazoned on his forearm: “DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS.” Venter’s circular arguments about himself and society are funny even when they’re depressing. Gerrard’s novel emphasizes just how desperately people want confirmation of their place in the world.
The reissue of Ninni Holmqvist’s “The Unit” (Other Press, 276 pp., $15.95 paper), originally published in 2006, offers a shrewd, timely exploration of gender. The main character, Dorrit, has never had a child and is unmarried, making her unneeded by this society’s standards. As a “dispensable” person, she agrees to go to the Unit, where she enjoys a luxurious lifestyle and wonderful new friends. But in return, she and these older citizens are subjected to physical tests, drug experiments and, eventually, organ harvesting. The novel has been compared to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but where Margaret Atwood’s classic focuses on procreation, Holmqvist’s novel feels broader, holding both capitalism and traditional gender roles under a harsh light. Dorrit is honest about her life, and she wonders whether the freedom she had in her youth was worth the price she pays now. Any woman — young or old — will relate to her plight.
“Tomorrow’s Kin: Book 1 of the Yesterday’s Kin Trilogy” by Nancy Kress (Tor, 352 pp., $25.99) starts off with a strong, intriguing angle. Theoretical geneticist Dr. Marianne Jenner makes a seemingly minor discovery that catches the interest of aliens camping out in New York. They inform her that she and a team of human scientists will be crucial in preventing a disaster in 10 months that could end humanity. The first half of the book swells with promise and interesting ideas, but by the middle, it grows soggy with sappy characterizations. It also features a cringe-inducing stereotype of a loud black woman: Sissy, Marianne’s assistant, with “frizzy curls.” Sissy didn’t understand how bad her college was until she went to fancy colleges with Marianne; she may not have book smarts, but she’s got sense! Kress’ novel, the first of a projected trilogy, is based on her Nebula Award-winning novella of the same name. It reads as breezily, and fans of aliens and first-contact stories may be compelled to pick up the second volume, forthcoming next spring.