Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review of The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

It’s for certain the case that the deeper an author gets into a setting that the more possibilities and avenues to expand the setting pop up.  For some authors its planned out all along, to extend and explore various storylines and characters through the world they’ve created in a series of stories or novels.  And sometimes it’s unplanned.  Sometimes an author looks back at the world they’ve created and realized something’s missing—a story still needing to be told.  In The Year of the Flood (2009), Margaret Atwood looked back to her earlier novel Oryx and Crake and decided to tell the other side—what was happening in the world beyond the titular pair, what role did in fact God’s Gardeners play in the circumstances that brought about the global pandemic, and what was life like outside the affluent, protected bubble of life in CorpSeCorps?

A parallel sequel rather than a sequential one, The Year of the Flood features storylines occurring at the same time as those of Oryx and Crake.  Unknown whether Atwood planned it all out in advance, Oryx and Crake did end on an open note that left room for, but did not by default require more.  What was added, however, makes the larger story much more immersive.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Review of Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution by Michael R. Underwood

Where fantasy literature was once written as fantasy, no need for pretense, in the contemporary glut of such fiction a self-awareness has appeared (some would say ‘natch’).  An author can no longer write of dragons or princesses without a century’s worth of stories using the same tropes tagging along behind, often in intentionally conspicuous fashion.  Given Michael R. Underwood’s Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution (2015), the glut has reached a point where even the commonality of the tropes themselves can be the subject of fiction.  (Can everybody else see the writing on the wall?)

Leah Tang is a struggling comedian who identifies herself through the fiction she reads, namely mainstream fantasy novels.  Ostracized by jocks while on stage one night, after the show a mysterious bystander makes her an offer seemingly too good to be true: to join a team of genrenauts who make excursions into genre settings, yes, to save the world (the real world, just in case you were confused) from destruction.  Her first assignment Wild West Land, Leah heads off to adventures unknown…  Actually, all too well-known given it is stereotypical wild west...

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review of Explorer by C.J. Cherryh

Inheritor, the concluding volume of C.J. Cherryh’s first Foreigner trilogy, was something of a disappointment, particularly the final sections.  What had been a staid, considered three volume series, in a few moments resolved itself in a flash-bang of prototypical pulp hash, complete with human-alien sex happiness.  Precursor and Defender, the first two novels in the second Foreigner trilogy, likewise lay down a staid, considered storyline, thus raising the question whether the third and concluding volume, Explorer (2003), will follow in the footsteps of Inheritor?  (Spoiler: no.)

Cherryh using the gap between novels to traverse the length (and boredom) of space, Explorer opens with space ship Phoenix arriving in Reunion Station space.  A couple of surprises await.  First is an alien space ship parked quietly to the side.  The second is somehow more surprising.  Communications opened with the Pilot’s Guild on Reunion Station and its general, Braddock, there is an unexplained reluctance to allow Saban, Jace, Bren and the remainder of the Phoenix crew to board Reunion and get the fuel they need to make the return trip to the Atevi home world.  Saban’s tough manner not making things easier with Braddock, the situation quickly escalates when it’s learned that the alien attack that supposedly occurred years before has ongoing repercussions, meaning the Phoenix’s return, let alone survival, is anything but certain.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2017 novel New York 2140 is something of a return for the author.  Having started his career in fiction with an abstractly connected trilogy of near future science fiction novels depicting a post-apocalypse, dystopia, and ‘utopia’ respectively, often called the Orange County series, he used three very different future histories of Southern California to examine social, economic, environmental, and political issues.  His later novels going to Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and deep space, New York 2140 looks back to the Orange County series for method, moves to the East Coast for setting, and, unsurprisingly, finds that a lot of the issues requiring address in the 80s still require visionary imagination in 2017.

After a decades-spanning series of Pulses, the Earth’s ocean waters have risen 50 feet.  New York City, like the remainder of the world’s coastal urban areas, has found its landscape entirely changed.  Lower Manhattan a gridwork of canals rather than streets as a result, the super-scrapers are now being built in upper rather than lower Manhattan.  Completing the migration, the city’s wealthy and affluent have also moved up-town, leaving the crumbling inter-tidal zone to those who can make life happen. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review of "Proof of Concept" by Gwyneth Jones

“Proof of Concept” by Gwyneth Jones is the story of Kir.  A young woman living on a 23rd century, over-populated Earth with all the encumbent environment and social problems, she has something the majority do not: an AI named Altair living in her head.  A scientist cum reality tv star, Kir gets the chance of a lifetime when she agrees to live deep below the Earth and participate in a project called the Needle, doing her part to research FTL travel.  Seemingly mankind’s only hope to escape the cauldron of pollution and poverty it created on the surface above, things start to get weird when Kir’s colleagues begin dying one by one. 

If that paragraph seems to pack a lot of ideas, indeed Jones’ novella does.  “Proof of Concept” is at times sardine-like.  The story style is dense and blocky, with movement neither smooth or flowing.  Jones immersing the reader without introduction to the 23rd century, it’s an experience to grope through—seemingly with intention, given the parallels to the subjectivity of information in Kir’s world.  (That being said, I have read other of Jones’ short fiction, and it had a similar style.)  Close reading is required.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review of "The Enclave" by Anne Charnock

Anne Charnock’s 2013 novel A Calculated Life was a quiet success.  A human dystopia, Charnock discreetly melded an engaging storyline to material that reflects on the direction the upper class is moving with technology.  No zombies or savage survival to sugar the senses, the main character’s plight traced the suspense inherent to her rather specific circumstances through a personal search for meaning in the protected niches of an affluent city.  Charnock returning to the novel’s setting in 2017, the novella The Enclave addresses a part of the story A Calculated Life briefly touched upon, but through the eyes of new characters wildly different circumstances.

Where A Calculated Life featured the symbiant Jayna and was largely set in an urban environment, The Enclave takes place in the ‘burbs and is told through the lives of a young boy and his overseer.  Not an American, white picket fence suburban existence, the enclaves (as they are called by the locals) are home to the underclass—people who do not want or cannot take advantage of the biological and medical technology available in the city.  Caleb is a boy in the enclave who has been sold into indentured labor to Ma Lexie, a woman whose small crew runs an operation turning trash and recyclables into cheap clothing.  Ma Lexie recognizing his talent, she immediately sets him to work sewing clothes and selling their goods in the market.  Ma Lexie’s treatment of her crew both gentle and rough, Caleb gets an occasional slap for his transgressions, but at the same time has a relative degree of freedom that many other indentured servants, like those he tosses bottle message to from his rooftop hut, don’t.  Big choices eventually placed upon the shoulders of a small boy, Caleb’s time in the enclaves comes to a head: he must decide his future.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review of The Map & the Territory by Michel Houllebecq

One can make some assumptions about the stereotypical ‘high brow French literary novel’.  It will have art and artists.  It will have relationships with sexual issues.  It will have a detached, affected tone remarking mildly on minor revelations while savoring cynicism—as if existence were something strange, something to look at with a raised eyebrow. Stereotypes taking time to cement themselves in cultural mindset, however, Michel Houellebecq’s 2010 novel The Map & the Territory thus comes as something of an anachronistic surprise. 

Clinging to these traditional bulwarks of ‘high brow French literature’, The Map & the Territory sets two artists front and center: one is the fictional Jed Martin, a photographer cum painter who starts small but comes to some success, and the other Houellbecq himself.  Martin falling in love (or something resembling love, that ‘high brow French literary’, distance from existence again…) with the sexy Russian beauty Olga in the early part of his career, the relationship quickly goes south, and Martin finds himself alone.  Perfect opportunity to shift to a new phase in your artistic career you predict?  You would be correct.  Martin goes on to channel his sadness at the doomed relationship (or something like sadness…) into a hugely successful series painting fictional scenes from the lives of contemporary luminaries, scenes like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discuss the Future of Information Technology.  Houellebecq one of the luminaries nominated to have his likeness rendered in oil on canvas, Martin meets the brooding writer, and the two strike up a friendship (or something like a friendship…)  Things get a bit shaken up when Houellebecq is found brutally murdered, meaning the police need to speak to Martin to find out why.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Review of Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Where o’ where, and how o’ how, I kept asking myself while reading Tom McCarthy’s 2015 Satin Island, is this novel going to tie itself in to its title?  A Joe Anybody corporate guy leading the way, his relatively mundane job, his obsessions with common media headlines, his standard work travel, his quotidian rendezvous with a girlfriend, his attempts to contextualize himself in this mix—nothing seemed related to textiles or archipelagoes.  But in an instant—a homophonic miscollocation—the title coalesced, then recoursed through the novel, making everything clear, or more precisely, clearly unclear. 

Capturing the skew, the kilter of 21st century “reality”, Joe Anybody (who asks the reader to call him U) works for the Company.  His office in the basement among ventilation shafts and blank walls, U is tasked by his motivational speaker cum CEO with the Great Project: to define contemporary anthropology—to unlock the logic underpinning present-day Western social behavior.  Using his formal training as an anthropologist as launch point, U digs into headlines and observes humanity with a strange, detached inititiative.  Even stranger is the positive response he receives from peers and others in business as he travels around the world, presenting his work to date.  Though U himself only distantly feels it, there doesn’t seem full cohesion of his project and the world beyond…

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review of The Great Courses: How Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe

There is a lot of us/them in the science fiction community, the common perception being that the literati draw a line in the sand between genre and literary fiction, no crossing allowed. (For the record, I view mainstream fiction—Lee Child, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, and other popular “realist” writers—as being the same beast as mainstream science fiction. Literary fiction is a different animal.) “They don't review our books.” “They don't put our books on award ballots.” “They don't take our books seriously.” Yes, us/them. What most of the science fiction community doesn't realize (predominantly because they rarely if ever actually read literary fiction) is that literary fiction is not a club intended to keep the riff-raff out. It has a commonly enough agreed definition (see here or Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms), and if looked at closely, does not specifically exclude any genre, let alone science fiction . This is what makes Gary K. Wolfe's The Great Courses: How Great Science Fiction Works so damn bothersome.

One of the introductory quotes in K. Wolfe's lecture series is: “Most of what we'll be discussing in this course is the literary side of science fiction... and what makes for a great science fiction story as opposed to a run-of-the-mill space adventure or monster tale.” Like Aldiss before him, Wolfe then launches into how Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne pioneered early science fiction. Well enough. But then, Wolfe gets into the pulp era, and it's here the aspiration to distinguish “great science fiction” from the “run-of-the-mill” variety begins to trip up. And it only gets worse. By bringing more and more mainstream sf writers into the mix, K. Wolfe stumbles.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Review of Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Time.  Sometimes you just don’t have enough, and others it’s all you’ve got.  The latter is is the situation of the two main characters in Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 debut novel Good Morning, Midnight.  One stranded at an Arctic base and the other stuck on a long space flight from Jupiter, the human mind is given the freedom to conjure the breadth of its available material, to look in closer detail things it might have skipped over in the past, and perhaps, come to some higher sense of self-understanding.

Augustine is an elderly man stuck in the middle of a promise to himself to complete his life’s ambition: a theory of astronomy that will put his name in history books.  Accordingly, he has spent his life living at remote observatories, standing at telescopes and radio arrays, gathering and sifting data, never thinking about a normal life or family, or even colleagues around him.  The beginning of the novel finds him aged seventy-eight at the Barbeau Observatory in the Arctic, when an emergency strikes.  A major cataclysm affecting the world beyond, the Observatory is evacuated by the military.  But Augustine chooses to remain behind to complete his life’s ambition, and in doing so, is forced to reckon with time, solitude, and questions about what kind of person he has been.   

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review of Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley

Glorious, just glorious.  Taxonomizing Robert Sheckley’s 1968 Dimension of Miracles brings me to no different term.   I can think of no other category, no other fiction type, nothing to reduce its cleverness, humor, philosophy, its…  dynamic metaphysicality to a set term.  I fear even writing this review will render it absurd, skew it beyond focus to the point the commentary does not resemble the novel.  Best to start with the salient facts…

Tom Carmody is a winner of a galactic lottery—incorrectly so, but the prize insists he not give up the position.  The prize itself an object of chaos, Carmody is whisked away from Earth on a galactic tour that leaves him not only breathless, but desperate to return home.  Lacking the coordinates of Where, When, and Which, however, sets him on an urgent search—a search that gets even more desperate when Carmody learns a predator of his own creation chases him through the universe. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review of Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock

Joan Slonczewski’s 1984 science fiction novel A Door into Ocean is notable for its depiction of parthenogenesis.  Likely the first book to depict human reproduction without spermatozoa, the women of the planet Shora maintained peace and harmony partially through this form of genealogical and gender control.  The novel as a whole is a bit gimmicky, but a human society which can reproduce itself without a two-gender dichotomy is an interesting idea in the least.  Taking it and imbuing it with the verisimilitude necessary for achieving relevancy is Anne Charnock’s third novel Dreams Before the Start of Time (2017, 47North).

Featuring generations of friends and family, Dreams Before the Start of Time is technically a saga.  Lacking the operatics the term is known for, however, the novel chooses instead to look into the human details of how pregnancy and realistic, alternate forms of reproduction might impact people’s thoughts and views about life, as well as the thoughts and views of the children and people brought to life through these non-standard means.  Each chapter told from a different character’s perspective, the narrative perpetually evolves through the personal reflections and social dynamics inherent to the scenarios.  Presentation more open-ended than manipulative, Charnock allows the potential of each scene and chapter to form its own thought flowers in the reader’s mind, the resulting worldview one balanced between Charnock’s and the reader’s perspective. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review of Remainder by Tom McCarthy

For many years my mother was a care worker for autistic youth.  One older boy she worked with, as part of his condition, did not distinguish reality from fiction.  He watched Spiderman on tv and therefore Spiderman was real.  At any moment the superhero could come swinging down from the trees outside the front door to zip and/or zap some baddie—zero distance between his reality and DC comic’s created reality. Of course for most of us the distance is greater than zero.  But it remains a question of subject and degree.  Some people keep a distance from the created realities of books, films, television and the other arts we immerse ourselves in regularly, while others draw closer, and are even capable of reciprocity.  (Have you seen, for minor example, the costumes at ComicCon or a Trekkie convention?)  Looking at an ordinary man who goes from a normal distance to zero, Tom McCarthy’s brilliant debut Remainder (2005) looks at created realities, our interest in and response to them—and in a manner significantly more intriguing than dressing up as Spiderman.

A delicate spiral, Remainder looks at art imitating life, life imitating art, and most importantly, movement between the two spheres as one becomes the other, all in strongly Ballardian fashion.  The blurring of lines creating a quiet personal crisis that spills over into the public domain in less than ideal fashion, the novel is disturbing from a pure story point of view: one man’s estrangement from reality becomes an obsession with realizing the “reality” thereof.   But from purely a thematic point of view, the novel is far less disturbing, rather more stimulating, captivating.  The interplay of the story’s devices and elements forms an engine whose potential parallels to real-world subject matter perpetually set the gears of thought turning.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Review of The Cosmology of the Wider World by Jeffrey Ford

Flustered by the originality of the premise, I don’t even know where to begin reviewing Jeffrey Ford’s 2005 The Cosmology of the Wider World.  How does one start introducing a story about a minotaur caught in the doldrums of life—his great work of academia not shaping up as planned, nor his personal life one of contentedness or satisfaction?  How does the reviewer begin to explain that, yes, some of the main characters include a tortoise, an owl, an ape, a whale—even a mad flea, and yet the human condition forms the story’s core?   I don’t know…

Born to a normal man and woman, Belius nevertheless emerges from the womb half man and half bull.  A sharp young lad, he grows up normally on their farm, though, his father goes to pains to let the cows out to feed only at night while Belius is sleeping.  But they can’t be kept hidden forever, and one stormy night Belius’ understanding of the world comes crashing down around him.  Coming to live in the Wider World in the aftermath, a place where only animals exist, Belius sets himself the task of defining its cosmology in an attempt to reconcile his half-man, half-beast state of being.  But long hours of writing, of collecting knowledge and putting it down on paper, does not suffice, and thus Belius sets out to get special assistance putting his soul back in order.

Review of Defender by C.J. Cherryh

A couple of years have passed since the events of Precursor, but the animosity of the Phoenix captains still burns hot toward atevi and Mospherian interests.  Despite this, atevi workers have made significant progress repairing the station, and no open fighting has occurred between the two sides.  But things change abruptly when Captain Ramirez dies.  Revealing secretive information about the distant space station Reunion and naming Jase as his replacement on his deathbed, events onboard the station move quickly from business as usual to full alert.  A mission to Reunion planned in the aftermath, Tabini nominates Bren, his grandmother Illisidi, and his sone Cajeiri to travel with Mospheiran and Phoenix representatives on the faster than light ship.  But with questions of power and authority during the long flight up in the air, will the ship ever leave Phoenix? 

Defender better than some of the books in the Foreigner sequence, Cherryh does a superb job keeping the suspense high.  Tabini’s actions seemingly inexpicable in the early going, Bren’s doubts about his position, which, when coupled with an unexpected assassination, serve to keep the diplomat/linguist squarely on his toes.  Meeting the would-be captain of the space flight to Reunion, a hard woman named Sabin, only puts him stronger on the alert.  The climactic scene taught with tension, it isn’t until the last moment the reader leanrs whether or not the proposed flight will take place.  And the mystery of what awaits on Reunion?  Well, that is for Explorer to define.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Review of And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees by Michael Bishop

There are many who would take utopia to have static meaning: society achieves a state of perfection and there exists until the end of time (oh, you Christians…).  Human dynamism and its trend toward perpetual change, however, would hint at said impossibility.  Seemingly unable to plateau, the presentation of a static society thus makes for ironically interesting material. 1976 saw the release of two novels addressing the very idea: Brian Aldiss’ The Malacia Tapestry and Michael Bishop’s And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees (later renamed Beneath the Shattered Moons). 

Ingram Marley is assistant to a magi named Gabriel Elk.  A magi who stages neuro-dramas for the aristocracy on the island of Ongladred on the planet Mansueceria, Elk is able to get around his society’s restrictions on cultural performances by choreographing shows with reanimated bodies of the dead using leftover technology few, if any, still understand.  Buying a corpse of a beautiful young woman in the early going, a new show debuts a few days later.  Featuring a poetry reading, it incites strong political discussion amongst the bourgeois of Ongladred in the dinner discussion that follows.  Ongladredan culture living under the perpetual threat of imminent collapse, when an attack from raiders does occur a few weeks later, Elk and Marley are called upon to employ their technology in defense.  Trouble is, is the defense too late?  Has Ongladred shot itself in the proverbial foot with its cultural practices?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review of Clade by James Bradley

Used so many times, it’s even got an abbreviation: post-ap.  Such is the dearth of near-future, civilization-destroyed, human-survival-in-extreme-circumstances, stories.  The market is saturated, pure and simple.  What to do then, to help yourself stick out from the crowd?  For his 2015 novel Clade, James Bradley went with a two-pronged attack.  Right prong: put real people at the center of your story (as opposed, for example, to the oft-tried but ne’er achieved relevancy of zombies) and left prong: use a non-standard story structure.

The result is an apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic novel more in the vein of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven than anything calling itself Night of the Living Dead.  Technically a saga (thankfully lacking the melodrama), Clade starts with an Australian scientist and his artist wife as Earth is just tipping over the edge of major environmental change, and wades in (no pun intended) as their children and grandchildren eventually deal with ever worsening conditions—flooding, drought, famine, disease, heat waves, and resource deprivation among them. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Review of Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman

Just when you thought nothing original—truly original (I am, after all, a semi-cynical bibliophile)—could be done with Hitler and his legacy, along comes a story that blows the lid off.  Finding a crack in a secret history and tearing it wide open one utterly unpredictable page after another is Ned Beauman’s 2010 Boxer, Beetle.

Written in wry, clever prose that generates scene momentum toward the overarching storyline, Boxer, Beetle is the story of Seth Roach, a 4-foot-11, nine-toed, Jewish boxer looking to take his revenge on the idea of life in London of 1936.  Boozing, whoring, gambling and getting in fights in and out of the ring, Roach is a veritable tornado of spite and gall.  A unique physical specimen to say the least, he draws interest from would-be scientist Philip Erskine in the the early going of the novel.  Offered 50 quid a day if he can be measured and observed for eugenics research, Roach gives Erskine a slap to the face.  But erratic choices eventually drag him to the gutter, and Roach is forced to give in to the service of Erskine.  It takes learning what Erskine is doing with a colony of exotic beetles from Poland, however, for Roach to clue himself in to what precisely the word "eugenics" means...

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review of Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe

There are some writers who seek to be as unique as possible—and fail or succeed in trying.  And there are some who try to use as many familiar ideas as is possible.  And yet still, there are writers who try to use familiar ideas in their own unique way.  Though he has written some truly original stories, I still place Gene Wolfe in the latter category.  Inspired by fiction around him, Wolfe has tackled a number of major tropes from genre, e.g. generation starship in The Book of the Long Sun, sword and sorcery in The Book of the New Sun, Arthurian adventure in The Wizard Knight, Orwellian dystopia in Operation Ares, a ghost story in Peace—just to name a few.  It didn’t come as a surprise then, when it was announced Wolfe would be publishing a pirate novel, Pirate Freedom appearing in 2007.

Pirate Freedom is the story of Chris.  An elderly priest in our time and an apprentice monk in a Cuba of more than two hundred years ago, for the majority of the novel the reader follows the young man’s adventures as he abandons the thought of one day wearing the black to have a life on the sea.  Abandoned by his own father at the monastery as a child, when Chris is sixteen he makes the choice to leave the brotherhood with only a penny or two to his name.  Traversing the wharves of Havana, it isn't long before he is hired onto a ship commissioned to escort a galleon loaded with gold back to Spain.  The trip going smoothly, Chris signs on for the return trip.  But before the sloop can arrive back in port, things go haywire. Pirates capture the vessel and Chris is faced with a choice from the captain: join the crew or be marooned on the next deserted island.  Chris takes the third option, and it makes all the difference.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Review of To Die in Italbar by Roger Zelazny

Even uncle wiki says it: Roger Zelazny’s novels show a tendency for cosmology.  This Immortal… uses Greek mythology, Creatures of Light and Darkness Egyptian, Lord of Light Hindu—these and others show a fondness for the belief systems underpinning cultures old and new.  While more indirect, Zelazny’s 1973 To Die in Italbar dallies with the Christ myth, just in less successful fashion.

Dropped into the the middle of the action, To Die in Italbar opens on a scene of sabotage.  A man named Malacar and his furry, mind-reading, alien companion plant bombs at a warehouse, and as a result destroy innocents as well as a horde of valuable trade goods.  Meanwhile on another planet, a man named Hymack stumbles through a forest riddled with diseases.  Collapsing near death, a goddess visits and heals him.  The next day he wanders into the nearby town and begins performing his own miracles at the local hospital.  But a switch somewhere flips, and the healing suddenly turns to infection, and giving life turns to suffering, sometimes death. The townsfolk wanting to kill him as a result, Hymack is forced to flee into the forest.  When Malacar learns of Hymack and his power to infect, an idea forms, and he sets out to capture the strangely powered man for his own ill intent.  There are still others, however, with different plans in mind for Hymack. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Review of The People's Police by Norman Spinrad

It’s perhaps an understatement to say the political situation in the US the past year or two has been a powder keg.  Strong opinion seemingly held on all sides (except the moderates, har har), innumerable fingers point in innumerable directions, attempting to assign fault for the ills that plague the country.  From “Why can’t we all love each other?” to “Divide and conquer”, the spectrum of opinion is vast even as the country’s problems appear to become worse.  Politicians and policy makers looking to button up the holes with new laws, Norman Spinrad’s 2017 novel The People’s Police asks: is an ever increasing litigious society not, in fact, the reason behind a lot of the ills?

The effects of Hurricane Katrina and 2008’s economic recession not hard enough on New Orleans, in 2020 another recession hits: the Great Deflation.  Once again due to overeager money lenders delivering loans that buyers cannot repay, the Big Easy finds itself in a poor way as the value of the dollar plummets.  Criminal activity is on the uptake as tourism—the main source of income for the city—is on the down.  Enter Luke Martin, a swamp rat who pulled himself up by the bootstraps hard enough to get a high school diploma and an invitation to police academy.  He is given the task of establishing a new precinct on the edge of the Alligator—New Orleans least lustrous side—and does so with gusto.  Around this time a woman named Marylou becomes inhabited by a loa and starts her own daytime tv show, Mama Legba and her Supernatural Krewe—the show’s popularity only increasing by the day.  And among the city’s elite stands, J.B. Lafitte, a hometown entrepreneur with his hands in a lot of pies, including local prostitution, souvenir shops, and gambling houses.  But he also has the interest of the city at heart, so when election time comes, and the northern half of Louisiana confirms its extremely conservative candidate for governor, Lafitte cooks up his own local candidate—a very liberal one, to say the least.  With a little help from Martin’s newly formed police group, as well as Mamma Legba herself, things might be looking up for the Big Easy, that is, if the National Guard doesn’t get called in…

Friday, March 3, 2017

Review of The Summer Isles by Ian R. Macleod

Despite it’s half-century of age, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four still gets a lot of air time in relation to political brainwashing and totalitarianism.  An extreme novel, it resorts to violence in converting the mindset of Winston Smith to believe 2+2 = 5, begging the question: what of the majority—the people who support the Party but did not need violence as motivation?  Where is the passivity inherent to such socio-political states, the subtlety of the human condition which allows oppression to become the norm?  After all, rarely are real-world governments as overtly tyrannical as Big Brother.  Jumping in to the gap to paint tyranny in a verisimilitude poignant, sobering, and realistic is Ian R. Macleod’s brilliantly penned The Summer Isles (2005).

A work of alternate history, The Summer Isles sets itself post-WWI in a scenario in which England lost the war.  John Arthur, a powerful right-wing politician, has come to power in the aftermath, and begun implementing conservative policies.  At the outset of the novel, the aging Griffin Brooke, former teacher of John Arthur, is drowning in self-pity.  Hope for a meaningful relationship lost as he wallows in the memories of a long ago affair, he takes a bigger hit when told by his physician that terminal lung cancer will end his life much sooner than expected.  An academic career at Oxford running stale and perpetual wariness at revealing his homosexuality taking its toll, Brooke consigns himself to his fate and elects to take a drastic measure in his last days on Earth.  The idyll of the summer isles is not far off.

Review of Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

It’s normal enough to open a book review by making a general observation about the common nature of this or that trope in fiction, and then go on to introduce a book that twists said trope in some fashion. Perhaps there are too many notches on my reading belt, but many a time I have read such reviews, read the book in question, then thought to myself “In fact there is nothing really unique about the novel…  It is a blatant representation of the trope, only the details of setting or character differ slightly….”  Thus, while no two grains of sand may be alike, standing on a beach they all look the same.  Robert Charles Wilson’s time travel novel Last Year (2016) is standing on the beach—the perfect metaphor for the most appropriate place to read the book.

Jesse Cullum is a strapping young man employed as security by The City, a specialized urban area constructed in the Illinois prairie in the mid-19th century by 21st century tycoon August Kemp.  Kemp having constructed a time portal between 2016 and 1877, The City contains hotels and other accommodations for people from the future to visit the past, and likewise provides tourist attractions for locals to come and see wondrous things from the future, such as helicopters and smartphones.  Cullum saving the life of President Ulysses Grant from a would-be assassin in the opening pages, the follow-up investigation reveals a trickle of illegal guns from the future, somehow being trafficked through the time portal.  Cullum a hero as a result, he is given a raise and assigned the task of finding the source of the guns.  Meeting 21st century agent Elizabeth DePaul in the process, together the two get to the bottom of the smuggling ring.  But that is only the beginning.  Political agitators and Kemp’s secret ambitions, as well as ghosts from Cullum’s past rising to the surface, things heat up for Cullum, and fast.  Time seems to hold no influence on greed and payback.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review of The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

Tucked into the middle of Ian Whates’ 2014 anthology Solaris Rising 3 is Adam Robert’s short story “Thing and Sick”.  Garnering little to no notice, it tells of two researchers sitting out long nights in Antarctica on a SETI project.  Together they maintain radios and machinery, cables and computer programs, but their free time serves only to widen the divide between their personalities.  One an introverted Kant fanatic, the other a more extroverted, pop culture kind of guy, trouble brews when the latter agrees to sell the former one of his personal letters from their weekly mail drops.  Possessing just the right tinge of something-else-ness to make the story science fiction, I thought “Roberts amalgamates philosophy, suspense, the isolation of Antarctica, and a minor character study in a truly compelling story. And the last line?  Beautifully slingshot.”  The slingshot, apparently, was into a novel.  In 2015 Roberts revealed the arching shot, titled The Thing Itself.

Positively non-standard in structure and form (a refreshing break from the glut of less-than-inspiring sf currently flooding the market), The Thing Itself extends the story of the two Antarctic researchers, Roy Curtius and Charles Gardner, to make the short story a prologue for the two’s later experiences in life, as well as the wild array of tributary fiction.  Missing toes and disfigured by frostbite, Gardner is unable to return to normal life in the UK after his time in the Antarctica with Curtius.  He descends into bad relationships and alcoholism and ends up working at a landfill for years before he is contacted by a scientist from a cutting edge institute.  Lured to the facility with promises of monthly compensation, car, and living quarters, it isn’t long before the secrets of the institute start revealing themselves.  Curtius living in a mental institution, he demands to see Gardner before he will reveal to the institute any of the advanced SETI programming he wrote while in Antarctica.  Gardner finally agreeing to meet with Curtius, it turns out to be a decision he will regret.  Reality slipping steadily away underfoot, the thing itself becomes as muddied as it does lucid.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Review of Moonglow by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon’s 2000, Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is a brilliant piece of Americana.  Telling the story of two immigrants through the lens of the mid-20th century comic book binge, the only thing topping the prose was the earnestness and relevancy of the humanity portrayed to the culture it sprang from.  Sixteen years later, Chabon proves the 20th century is still a major go-to for his work.  Moonglow published in 2016, it brings to the table every ounce of Chabon’s prose talents and understanding of the human soul through the lens of a country’s history which helped shape its today. 

A personal, largely biographical parallel to his own grandfather’s experiences and adventures growing up in the US throughout the 20th century, dying in the 80s, Chabon once again uses language in rich, clever fashion to tell a story with whole heart.  Moonglow is character and story driven.  Switching time frames between brilliantly detailed set pieces, the reader gains a patchwork understanding of what made grandpa Chabon tick, his effect on the future generations of his family, and the cultural and social spheres encountered just beyond the personal.  Grandpa’s obsession with spaceship models, his meeting with a rector in Germany amidst the final days of WWII, his hunting of a python at an old age community in Florida, the first time he met his future wife, his throwing of a cat from an upper floor window—these and many other scenes show a truly talented writer at work.  Taking the quotidian and making it uniquely human for the delicate quirks of the people involved, indeed, Chabon’s talent is one many writers dream of but so few have.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Review of Metronome by Oliver Langmead

Likely the most common first impression of Oliver Langmead’s debut novel Dark Star is the fact it is written in epic verse. But surely what keeps asses in the seats is the strong story complemented by stronger visuals. A dark backdrop offset by flashes of neon and static as the detective noir spins its web, it is a book that can be enjoyed from several angles. Not giving in to gimmick (thankfully), Langmead, for his follow up novel, abandons epic verse but sticks to his strong suit. Evoking image and scene splashily, Metronome (2017, Unsung Stories) features adventures and quests through dreams, the aesthetics continually inching toward fireworks.

But Metronome begins innocently enough. James Manderlay is a client at a home for the elderly. A former songwriter, he collects paltry royalty checks while trying to keep his sanity in a place seemingly full of people off their rockers. The age and steadiness of his hands betraying his daily tasks, it seems only in dreams do they respond completely to his commands. Nightmares lurking in dark corners, his travels through dreams seem more often escapes rather than journeys. That is, until he meets a man killing nightmares, and is given a strange but useful compass. The dreams taking more concrete shape in the aftermath, nights become less dark and more adventurous.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Review of The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

If ever there is a novel to ignore the cover, one would most certainly be Caitlin R. Kiernan’s 2009 The Red Tree.  What’s depicted seeming to indicate the novel is a faceless drop in the contemporary fount of YA slush, in fact, it is anything but.  A mature offering without the teen angst portrayed on the cover, Kiernan takes her novel to the next level by bringing to bear writing chops she had primarily been known for in short fiction into her long fiction, telling a very personal, human story in the process.  Any homage to horror or Weird, or acts of poignant catharsis, are just icing on the cake.

Sarah Crowe has moved to Rhode Island in an attempt to escape a disastrous relationship and kick start a long overdue novel.  Renting an apartment in an old, creaky farmhouse, Crowe has trouble settling in from the beginning.  The shadows in the basement are dark, and something in the air doesn’t feel right.  Making matters worse is Crowe’s discovery of an unpublished manuscript amidst the farmhouse’s clutter describing the history of a seemingly malevolent tree on the property.  A massive red oak, the author of the manuscript, in fact, eventually hung himself from it.  But pushing things over the top is that an artist takes up residence in the farmhouse’s attic.  The new novel may never get written given the circumstances, so best to pick up pen and paper and write down one’s thoughts and experiences, as strange as they are around the red tree.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Review of Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear

Brian Aldiss’ 1958 Non-Stop (aka Starship) is a landmark novel in generation starship stories.  Featuring a broken down ship hurtling through the blackness of space to destinations unknown, the humanity on board has reverted to various levels of primitivism, the corridors and rooms of the massive ship almost unrecognizable in an overgrowth of weeds and bushes.  The novel about one man’s journey through the layers of civilization (for lack of a better term), and ultimately the enlightenment awaiting at the end, Aldiss wrote an engaging story imbued with enough profundity to make the novel worth some merit.  In 2010 Greg Bear returned to the theme of a broken down generation starship to tell his own story, the dynamic Hull Zero Three the result.

Awaking from a dreamtime infused with visions of life on Earth, a man, dubbed Teacher by the little girl who frees him from his sac, emerges into the chaos of a ship filled with floating debris.  Gravity coming and going in erratic ship spin-ups and spin-downs, he and the girl try to survive the various dangers hidden in the debris, as well as the strange creatures, not all of which are entirely malevolent.  Losing and gaining knowledge in the form of books, their survival quest takes them slowly toward Hull Zero Three, and the bizarreness that awaits them there.

Review of Halcyon Drift by Brian Stableford

Shorter review: Vanilla sf, i.e. story matches cover image.

Longer review: Halcyon Drift (1972) is the story of Grainger, a man stranded on a distant planet after his spacecraft has crashed and his partner died.  Eventually rescued, he’s not without debt: firstly in money to the group that rescued him, and secondly to the mind parasite that took up residence in his brain while he was stranded.  Back among civilized systems, he must find a way to repay the people he owes.  A chance encounter, however, changes his fortunes: a pilot is needed to fly a very new, highly experimental spaceship.  And where to?  None other than the Halycon Drift, an uncharted nebuli where a treasure awaits to be recovered.

While Stableford’s on-point prose makes this story readable, overall it has serious trouble distinguishing itself from the myriad of other space operas.  If you are a fan of such works, then for sure Halcyon Drift will scratch your itch.  Otherwise, nothing special here.