Chill out, read up

Three new novels by Sacramento area writers—well, technically, two of them are from Davis—provide excellent reading material this summer. What's even more interesting is the similarity in themes—exploration, colonization, clashing cultures—in these otherwise very different novels.

First up is Davis science fiction legend Kim Stanley Robinson's newest work, Aurora (July 7, Orbit, $26). It opens near the end of the colonizing flight to the titular planet. The main character, Freya, is a young girl whose parents are heavily involved in keeping the ship's various systems running—especially her mother, who is the unofficial chief of the engineers. As Freya grows up and the journey nears its end, we see just how difficult—materially, physically and psychologically—interstellar travel really is and how much it changes humanity, and that's even with reasonable technological advances.

Robinson has written a fascinating and thought-provoking look into one possible future, and raises the question of whether or not human expansion into space is wise—or even possible.

If Robinson's assessment of colonization outside the solar system is grim, it's nothing compared to the historical epic that is William T. Vollmann's Seven Dreams series of novels. The fifth volume, The Dying Grass (July 28, Viking, $55), focuses on the 1877 Nez Perce war. Melding official history with “visions,” Vollmann has written a poetic and grisly account of the Unites States' extermination of the Nez Perce from what was then the Oregon territory and is now the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

As always, Vollmann is nothing if not encyclopedic. The appendices alone offer testament to the research that went into this novel. Fortunately, the story—especially the excursions into the internal lives of the main combatants—is nothing short of brilliant, reading like a prose poem. The casual racism, unthinking acceptance of white America's right to the entire continent and the way in which the fallout from the Civil War led to genocidal assaults on the natives of the West are all clearly on display. Also present—and it's a relief—are depictions of native life as both struggle and joy.

In context with the other volumes of the Seven Dreams series, The Dying Grass offers the best of a good argument for Vollmann's position as a front-runner for the next American Nobel laureate in literature.

The debut novel from Davis resident Naomi Williams, Landfalls (August 4; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $26), is a literary re-imagining—also with detailed historical facts—of the French expedition to circumnavigate the globe in 1785, led by Jean-Francois de Galaup de Lapérouse. In chapters with alternating narrators, we see the various landfalls of the title, as well as the long and dangerous stretches of seafaring.

As a nautical novel, it's fantastic; as a novel of cultural exchange and misunderstanding, it's even better. The imprint of imperial desire and colonial ambition is never far beneath the surface of the voyagers' scientific and ethnographic impulses, which means that it's no surprise when contact with local peoples takes unexpected turns, causing no end of problems even before the shipwreck that ends the voyage.

That's not a spoiler; it's history. And even that end is deftly handled, in historically resonant ways.

All these books, sited in different centuries, bring together the persistence of the human impulse to go somewhere else, coupled with our outraged surprise when it's not what we expected, and followed by the attempt to make every place over the way we want it to be. We're only human, after all.