Short book reviews

Davis, Calif., author Kim Stanley Robinson takes us three centuries into the future to find we’re still facing the big question: Can humanity survive itself? In the well-explored and terraformed solar system of 2312 (Orbit, $25.99), wealth is still concentrated in the hands of a few, and we’re still running out of room, plus Earth is a mess. Swan Er Hong, an odd resident of Mercury who’s fond of weird performance art and exists in near-autistic social isolation, finds herself in the middle of a mystery that involves eco-terrorism (on Mercury, Venus and Earth) and that forces her to develop some new relationship skills as she moves from inner system to outer. Best of all, Robinson makes the science readily understandable while keeping the human issues up front.

This Russian literary sci-fi novel by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, initially published in 1972 and now in a new translation by Olena Bormashenko, reminds us of how well science fiction explores humanity. In Roadside Picnic (Chicago Review Press, $15.95) Red Schuhart was only a boy when the aliens stopped by—and then departed, leaving a dangerous wasteland full of odd debris and weird spatial effects behind them. Now, he’s a “stalker,” making his living by venturing into the forbidden alien sites in search of technology—or industrial waste—to sell on the black market. And what does it mean that humanity’s best minds are the equivalent of insects at a barbecue to the visiting aliens?

The latest from Nobel laureate novelist Toni Morrison is technically a novel, but in reality, Home (Alfred A. Knopf, $24) is a narrative prose-poem that explores the ways in which cruelty propagates and defends itself. Frank Money is a penniless, traumatized Korean War vet who wakes up in a northern United States mental hospital, escapes and begins a journey back to his native Georgia to rescue his sister, Cee. This is a poetic dose of cold water. Those who would surrender for mid-century nostalgia are truly mad—the gynecologist who is using Cee in a brutal medical experiment, for example—while the women do not blithely accept their lot.

We know that volcanoes change climate: An eruption’s ash and gas create clouds of debris which block the sun and causes extreme weather. But Bill McGuire suggests—citing millions of years’ worth of geologic history in his book, Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes (Oxford University Press, $29.95)—that the reverse is also true: Climate change can produce geologic events. Melting glaciers and ice sheets can shift the mass of the Earth, producing geologic events, including “isostatic rebound”—an actual “bounce-back”—from the Earth’s crust from the weight loss when ice melts. It’s a good—and flat-out terrifying—case that we may be leaving our descendants a world that is hotter, wetter and more geologically unstable.