SHOVEL READYBy Adam Sternbergh. Headline. 243pp. $29.99.WOLVES By Simon Ings. Gollancz. 295pp. $29.99.PROXIMABy Stephen Baxter. Gollancz. 455pp. $29.99. SF GATEWAY OMNIBUS. Bob Shaw. Gollancz. 519pp. $35.SF GATEWAY OMNIBUSBy James Blish. Gollancz. 302pp. $39.

Sci-fi stories of the 1930s and 1940s were essentially optimistic, with a belief in scientific progress, but the nuclear bomb and the Cold War saw an upsurge of dystopian, or apocalyptic, SF from the 1950s onwards. This trend has continued with increasing intensity through to now, as well as seeping into mainstream readership, notably in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Adam Sternbergh, the culture editor of The New York Times Magazine, sets his debut novel, Shovel Ready, in a dystopian world, extrapolated from current concerns about climate change, migrant intake and societal divide. A terrorist dirty bomb explosion, in Sternbergh’s near-future New York, contributes to the ”incremental apocalypse” from which the rich escape to the alternate ”limnosphere”.

Sternbergh’s deliberately minimalist prose effectively reflects a largely barren New York landscape. Here his ”damaged hero”, the Spademan, a former garbage collector turned contract killer, is hired to ”take care of” the daughter of America’s richest evangelist. The Spademan finds himself ultimately defending her in classic Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett (remember Sam Spade) noir tradition. Shovel Ready is an intriguing mixture of genres, especially hard-boiled crime and dystopian SF.

Simon Ings’ near-future people ”still live in a world of affordable plenty … Soon they will wake to discover that, blinded by fictitious capital, they have been torching what few riches were left”. Wolves is essentially a personal odyssey for the main character, Conrad, in which his past and present intersect. Conrad works on the technology of augmented virtual reality (think Google glasses to the nth degree), which comes to overlay the real one. It offers each individual their own world view, but will they realise the real world is slipping away.

Conrad notes ”the human world falls apart, not through catastrophe, but from mounting internal failure”. Wolves juxtaposes Conrad’s personal failures and the possible murder of his mother with his development of alternate reality. The two narrative lines don’t always connect in a deliberately elliptical novel, which echoes J. G. Ballard’s surreal near futures.

British ”hard SF” writer Stephen Baxter takes the reader out of this world in Proxima, the first of a duology. The convict transportations to Australia are reworked in a one-way 60-year journey, from an Earth dominated by China and nations aligned to the UN, to Proxima C, a planet in the Alpha Centauri system.

The colonists, mostly white-collar convicts, soon fragment into small warring communities. Baxter’s main characters, Yuri and Mardina, a female security officer from a ”dried-out, emptied, China-dominated Australia”, break away, both to survive and to explore the planet’s alien biology and flora. Baxter superbly evokes the planetary challenges but then, in typical Baxter fashion, takes his couple through wormholes back to solar-system politics alongside discourse on topics ranging from the development of artificial intelligence to the origins of the universe. Too heady a mix for overall narrative coherence, but no one could ever doubt Baxter’s ability to evoke a sense of SF wonder.

The Gollancz Gateway series bring back some of the best 20th-century SF writing, both in print and digital form. Bob Shaw (1931-96) will be probably best remembered for his ”slow glass” concept, but the selection of Orbitsville (1975), A Wreath Of Stars (1976) and The Ragged Astronauts (1986), will not disappoint readers. Their mixture of scientific detail and imaginative plotting follows in the Arthur C. Clarke mould.

James Blish (1921-1975), one of the leading SF writers of the 1950s and 1960s, is best known for his classic A Case of Conscience (1958). Unfortunately, the current compilation does not include it, nor any of his epic Okies quartet. Instead Gateway reprints his reworking of the Satanic myth in Black Easter (1968) and The Day After Judgement (1971), which Blish regarded as one novel. The Seedling Stars (1957) highlights Blish’s interest in biology with linked stories reflecting his concept of ”pantropy”, whereby humanity must evolve to colonise deep space.

An apocalyptic future from many angles