First was Justina Robson's Natural History (Macmillan, 2003). Several hundred years into the future, genetic engineering has progressed to the the point that humans can create engineered humans with new forms suitable for the exploitation and colonization of the solar system. Though they retain their essential human psychology (they're raised in a virtual reality in which they have traditional human forms), the bodies of the Forged no longer resemble their human ancestors in any way, taking the forms of transport ships, rocs capable of interplanetary travel, and even stranger things. Lonestar Isol, a Voyager-class Forged, has been designed as one of earth's first interstellar explorers. After being mortally wounded passing through a cloud of micrometeors at .25c, she encounters a mysterious object which heals her, and permits her to travel instantaneously to its home world and then return to earth. Her return, of course, precipitates all manner of problems. The Forged want a world of their own where they can be free of the influence of unevolved humanity. The planet itself must be explored, and it must be confirmed that the aliens who once lived there pose no threat. And the mysterious artifact itself appears to have strange effects on those who use its abilities. Robson deftly juggles all these plot threads to produce a remarkably satisfying book. The book is packed with interesting characters: Zephyr, the unevolved archaeologist sent to confirm the alienness and emptiness of the newly discovered world; Gritter, a Degraded human with the body of a vulture who serves as a spy and messenger; Tatresi, a cargo ship and consummate politician; the Strategos, who with his MekTek implants serves as tactician to General Machen, and many more. A lot of fun, at least after you get past the first chapter (which is told from the viewpoint of Isol on her journey away from earth, and is a rather confusing introduction to the world). My only complaint is that the physics and genetics strike me being not entirely plausible, but they're close enough and the plot chugs along so fast that it's easy to ignore the problems.
Jack Finney's Time And Again was originally published back in 1970, and is now available as part of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series. This is the September selection for the original_fantasy reading group at yahoo (which generally picks interesting books that I seldom actually get around to reading). Simon Morley is recruited by a top secret government program which is attempting to send people back in time (their method involves having the subject live exactly as they would have lived in the target time, and then enter a hypnotic trance during which they slip back to the other time. Not exactly realistic, but then, it's published as fantasy, not science fiction). Simon convinces them to let him go back to 1882 New York City so he can resolve a mystery concerning a mysterious letter that was found next to body of his girlfriend's foster father after his suicide. The mystery, however, remains secondary for a large part of the book. Instead, Simon spends most of his time simply experiencing 1882. Finney does an amazing job of conveying Simon's wonder and joy as he explores the city as it was then. Simon is an artist, and the novel, in the form of his journal, provides wonderfully rich, detailed descriptions of the city and its inhabitants. In an unusual touch, Finney even provides Simon's sketches and photographs. Finally, before Simon's explorations of the city have a chance to become tedious, Finney returns to the mystery of the letter and brings everything to a thrilling and satisfying conclusion. I was totally entranced by Time And Again; it's definitely one of the best books I've read in quite some time.
Magnus Mills' The Scheme for Full Employment (Picador, 2002) is a slim little book describing a near-future England in which the narrator is a Univan driver in The Scheme. The Scheme consists of a network of depots used to store parts for and maintain the Univans, which daily transport the parts between the various depots as required. The system is designed to be hugely inefficient, as parts are shuffled around from one depot to another, with the intent of providing 8 hours per day of employment for all of the Scheme's participants. Everybody knows the Scheme serves no productive purpose beyond providing a decent wage to its participants while satisfying taxpayers that its workers are not getting money for doing nothing. In other words, it's a totally wacky idea that I can just believe somebody might implement. Of course, by the end of the book, the whole scheme has fallen apart (as the first chapter hints it will). The book does get a bit repetitive (as might be expected for a book about a character whose job is driving a van between the same four depots every day), but it's funny and whimsical enough that I enjoyed it.
Lastly, a horror novel, Douglas Clegg's The Hour Before Dark (Leisure Books, 2002). Gordie Raglan is gruesomely murdered in the smokehouse outside his sprawling New England island home, and the police are baffled. Nemo Raglan is summoned home to help his siblings Bruno (at 23, still young and somewhat immature) and Brooke (who was still living with their father, and is now an emotional wreck) cope with the aftermath of their father's death. Once there, Nemo recalls the memories of his mother (who 15 years before left for Brazil with her lover), is reunited with his high school sweetheart, and finally confronts the memories of the Dark Game, which the three siblings had played as children, and which had led to a week which none of them could remember (the "Brain Fart"). Clegg does a wonderful job of evoking the isolated and lonely atmosphere of a frigid Burnley Island, inhabited by only a few hundred hardy souls in the middle of a New England winter. And the tension builds quite nicely as the story progresses. Unfortunately, less than halfway through the book, I'd guessed exactly what was going on and what would happen to all the main characters, so the second half felt unnecessarily drawn out. I think this could have been a brilliant novella, but it was only so-so as a novel.