The idea that evolution could suddenly move backward may seem like an incredible fantasy, but in Louise Erdrich’s dreamlike, suspenseful “Future Home of the Living God,” it’s a fitting analogue for the environmental degradation we already experience.
A biological apocalypse has animals suddenly appearing in trippy, shocking manifestations — a dragonfly with a 6-foot wingspan, “golden-green eyes the size of softballs,” for example. Humans aren’t immune to “life dissolving into its mineral components,” which is why the new American government, the Church of the New Constitution, expands the original intent of the Patriot Act and requires all pregnant women to report to birthing centers. During a biological apocalypse set two months in the future, when the borders between Mexico and Canada are sealed off, Cedar Hawk Songmaker — 26, pregnant, and with a burning independent streak — eventually learns why the government will do anything to ensure she has her baby under strict surveillance. Not all the pregnant women are as useful to the authorities as Cedar is, because they think she has a rare “normal,” unaltered fetus in her womb. Born Ojibwe but adopted by earnest white liberals in Minneapolis, Cedar is a flinty, determined, spiritual woman whose hesitance to trust others comes in handy in a world where suddenly no one should be trusted. And Cedar has three worlds to navigate: the one she was raised in and the Ojibwe family she is just coming to know, not to mention a United States ruled by a religious government in which a creepy, all-seeing, robotic figure named Mother hunts for Cedar. Framed as a letter to Cedar’s unborn child, this novel is bracing, humane, dedicated to witnessing the plight of women in a cruel universe, and full of profound spiritual questions and observations. Like some of Erdrich’s (“LaRose,” 2016) earlier work, it shifts adroitly in time and has a thoughtful, almost mournful insight into life on a Native reservation. If Erdrich hasn’t previously ventured into tropes normally employed by sci-fi writers, she doesn’t show the inexperience here.
There is much to rue in this novel about our world but also hope for salvation: “I think we have survived because we love beauty and because we find each other beautiful,” as the novel’s protagonist puts it. “I think it may be our strongest quality.”
Occasionally intriguing sci-fi
Andy Weir (“The Martian,” 2014) returns with “Artemis,” another off-world tale, this time set on a lunar colony several decades in the future.
Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara is a 20-something deliveryperson, or “porter,” whose welder father brought her up on Artemis, a small multidomed city on Earth’s moon. She has dreams of becoming a member of the Extravehicular Activity Guild so she’ll be able to get better work, such as leading tours on the moon’s surface, and pay off a substantial personal debt. For now, though, she has a thriving side business procuring low-end black-market items to people in the colony. One of her best customers is Trond Landvik, a wealthy businessman who, one day, offers her a lucrative deal to sabotage some of Sanchez Aluminum’s automated lunar-mining equipment. Jazz agrees and comes up with a complicated scheme that involves an extended outing on the lunar surface. Things don’t go as planned, though, and afterward, she finds Landvik murdered. Soon, Jazz is in the middle of a conspiracy involving a Brazilian crime syndicate and revolutionary technology. Only by teaming up with friends and family, including electronics scientist Martin Svoboda, EVA expert Dale Shapiro and her father, will she be able to finish the job she started. Readers expecting “The Martian’s” smart math-and-science problem-solving will only find a smattering here, as when Jazz figures out how to ignite an acetylene torch during a moonwalk. Strip away the sci-fi trappings, though, and this is a by-the-numbers caper novel with predictable beats and little suspense. The worldbuilding is mostly bland and unimaginative (Artemis apartments are cramped; everyone uses smartphonelike “Gizmos”), although intriguing elements — such as the fact that space travel is controlled by Kenya instead of the United States or Russia — do show up occasionally. In the acknowledgements, Weir thanks six women, including his publisher and U.K. editor, “for helping me tackle the challenge of writing a female narrator” — as if women were an alien species. Even so, Jazz is given such forced lines as “I giggled like a little girl. Hey, I’m a girl, so I’m allowed.”
One small step, no giant leaps.
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