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Originally published Sunday, August 18, 2013 at 5:10 AM

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Science fiction that tests the limits of life and death

Three new science-fiction novels test the boundaries between life, death and immortality. Featured: “Love Minus Eighty” by Will McIntosh, “Neptune’s Brood” by Charles Stross and “The Beautiful Land” by Alan Averill.

Special to The Seattle Times

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In the wake of my youngest sister’s recent, unexpected death, science-fiction novels about immortality have a new appeal for me. “Love Minus Eighty” by Will McIntosh (Orbit, 432 pp., $16) takes on an idea familiar to most genre readers — life extension through suspended animation, brought about by “cryogenically” lowering the body’s temperature.

“Corpsicles,” as those who’ve undergone this process are disrespectfully referred to, are already a genuine phenomenon, though none have yet been revived. McIntosh simply extrapolates from their existence to a time when cryogenic technology has developed sufficiently that revival is possible.

As in his Hugo Award-winning story “Bridesicle” (the basis for this book), the economics driving the technology are reminiscent of present day single-Russian-women-want-to-be-your-wife scams. Full of humor and Austen-ish insight into his characters’ foibles, McIntosh interweaves the stories of a bridesicle named Mira who just happens to be a lesbian and those of mismatched adventurers looking for love in all the wrong places — with which the future seems well supplied.

The cast of Charles Stross’ self-proclaimed “space opera” “Neptune’s Brood” (Ace, 336 pp., $25.95) is immortal because it’s post-human. In 7000 CE everyone is, including our heroine, Krina Alizond-114, offspring of the fabulously wealthy banking executive Sondra Alizond-1. Krina, who’s what we’d call today an artificial intelligence, travels the galaxy at the speed of light by beaming her personality from one robot chassis to another. She’s looking for her sister Ana, who was hot on the trail of a fabled fiduciary instrument capable of changing the strange but stable civilization humanity’s heirs have enjoyed for millennia.

Stross wields one of the sharpest, wickedest minds in SF. He’s an idea-monger who never seems to run out of challenges to the status quo, using impeccable logic as a bridge to far-fetched scenarios populated with bat-mimicking privateers and communalist squid colonies.

Never boring but often verging on the incomprehensible, Stross’ 16 previous novels include six Hugo nominees, so obviously he’s doing something right. “Neptune’s Brood” may prove to be the book that wins him an even wider audience — not because it’s devoid of science-fictional elements like inhabited asteroids and radical, body-altering surgery, nor because it steers clear of Stross’ obsession with the complexities of high finance. It contains these elements, but makes them easily graspable.

Alan Averill’s debut novel “The Beautiful Land” (Ace, 362 pp., $15) deals with the downside of deathlessness. In the midst of committing suicide, protagonist Takahiro O’Leary answers a recruiting phone call from the Axon Corporation. He tables the suicide attempt and is hired to explore alternate universes, but comes to realize that his employer has opted to destroy all such alternate worlds in a bid to win for the company’s founder the changelessness of immortality. O’Leary does his desperate best to defeat the gigantic black birds his boss created as universe-destroying viruses.

Averill won Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award for “The Beautiful Land.” Though it’s an ambitious book that does many smart things — demolishing racist and sexist stereotypes, for example — its bird-viruses don’t make sense, even within the novel’s limits, and its conclusion feels far too safely pat. Perhaps this promising new Seattle writer’s next effort will produce something more deserving of literary immortality.

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