Monday, September 25, 2017

Review of Spindrift by Allen Steele



Allen Steele’s Coyote trilogy was something of a mild surprise for me.  It is not the most literary of science fiction, but that was not Steele’s aim.  Presenting a reasonable scenario wherein humanity colonizes another planet with a cast of characters that hover between 2D and 3D experiencing drama that was not off the charts, it makes for enjoyable enough reading within the hard/soft sf field.  The canvas of the trilogy broad enough to accommodate a variety of spinoffs and even outright continuation of the main storyline, it was likely to no one’s surprise that in 2007 Steele published another novel in the Coyote universe, Spindrift.

A frame story, Spindrift opens with three astronauts, Theodore Harker, Emily Collins, and Jared Ramirez, returning unexpectedly to Earth in a strange space vessel after having disappeared fifty years ago on a space mission nobody knew the fate of.  The mystery of the fifty-year gap explained in the main story, things begin with the USS Galileo, lead by an incompetent but well connected captain, setting off to investigate a strange alien signal eminating from a BDO, nicknamed Spindrift, in a nearby galaxy.  A big secret discovered by Harker, Collins, and Ramirez en route to the BDO—a secret the captain would rather the crew have not known, the open-minded nature of the trip takes a hit, and comes full face upon arrival at Spindrift.  Events spiraling out of control, the mystery of the BDO is answered even as the veil of sentient life in the universe is peeled back.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review of Heroes & Villains by Lewis Shiner



In the introduction to his 2017 collection Heroes and Villains, Lewis Shiner points out that the best length for purely entertaining fiction, whether it be horror, action, spy thriller, etc., is the novella.  And I have to agree.  If you want to relax after a long day and just escape for an hour or two into a complete story that does not tax the brain, a novella can really hit the spot.  Putting his money where his mouth is, Heroes and Villains (2017, Subterranean Press) features three novellas previously published in Subterranean magazine, as well as one original short story.  Representing the more genre-heavy side of Shiner’s fiction, it is a relaxing, escapist collection.

Like the film Valkyrie but with a Houdini twist, “The Black Sun” tells of a group of stage magicians who hatch a plot to take down Hitler.  Playing with the Fuhrer’s belief in the magical, destructive potential for the Spear of Destiny, the group devise an intricate plan, complete with ‘stage effects’.  Near misses abound setting up their plan, when the big day comes all their cards are on the table.  The time and place of Hitler’s real death a historical fact, from the outset the group’s goal would seem to be a failure—or the set up for an alternate history.  Surprisingly, Shiner takes a third option.  To say more would naturally spoil matters, but at least I can say the build up is resolved in organic fashion.  The story backdrop probably could have been expanded a touch (there is a bit of character and setting detail missing, details that normally give a story that full feeling), but the build up and climax make it worthwhile.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Review of Amatka by Karin Tidbeck



Karin Tidbeck arrived on the English language scene around 2012 with several quality short stories collected in Jagganath.  “Sing”, “Reindeer Mountain” and others received a variety of critical attention, primarily for their ethereal fairy-tale qualities that were far more Weird than princesses, knights in shining armor, or majestic castles.  In 2017 Tidbeck makes her English language debut in novel form with Amatka.  A work of dystopian science fiction that feels like a very bland offshoot of Ursula Le Guin and Clifford Simak, I think it’s fair to say Tidbeck’s strengths lie in Jagganath-type material…

Amatka is the story of Vanja.  Marketing researcher for a personal hygiene company, she is asked by her firm to make a cross-continental trip to the industrial city of Amatka to discover brands the shops stock, gaps in the local market, and what the most popular products are among its people.  Amatka a communal society, after filling out the appropriate forms Vanja is provided a room and given free rein to wander the city.  Meeting her roommates, the librarian, and a rebellious older woman named Ula, Vanja slowly becomes aware of skeletons in Amatka’s closet, and begins to ask questions about the rote and routine of society.  Why do the people need to read and repeat the names of solid objects, like a pen or suitcase, for them to retain their shape?  Why does the commune enforce societal parenting?  And why does the recorded history of the poet Erren not quite fit reality?  Needing to take some bold steps to get answers to these questions, Vanja’s life finds a new road by the end of Amatka.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What Comes Next: Questions & Potential Answers Regarding The No-God Duology


In the wake of reading my review of The Unholy Consult, R. Scott Bakker’s concluding volume to the Aspect-Emperor series, a gentleman from the Second Apocalypse forum (the place for discussion on anything Earwa) contacted me privately, asking what I thought of the conclusion to The Unholy Consult and my opinion what might come next—what the follow up and concluding duology, tentatively titled The No-God series, might hold for readers. The more I thought about answers to these questions, the more I realized I should organize them ‘on paper’, and if going that far, why not post them. So, if you haven’t read The Unholy Consult, do not read this post as it will contain major spoilers.  (Another warning, I am writing this with extremely little knowledge of what's happening in forums and other discussions on the Second Apocalypse, so apologies if it seems naive to readers who have invested themselves significantly more than than me into the series.)

Before I dive in, I should note that I read somewhere a while ago (of course I can’t find it now) that all along Bakker had in his mind a solid outline for the series to date, and generally stuck to it throughout the writing, but has only a relatively concrete path before him for the next series. For those not paying attention, this means a few things:

1. The abrupt ending of The Unholy Consult was planned all along, and should be considered as such
2. The bulk of Bakker’s thematic agenda has been delivered
3. Anything that comes after is likely to be more complementary and confirming than developmental or game-changing

Therefore, the question is: where to go from the rise of the No-God and the dawn of the Second-Apocalypse?  Before getting into the possibilities, we need to establish three key baselines.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review of The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker



Mao Zedong, Jan Sobieski, George W. Bush—there are innumerable people throughout history who were good at attaining positions of power, and yet seemingly helpless afterwards to maintain that power through good decisions that benefited the society they ruled.  I daresay the same is true for a lot of epic fantasy.  Many authors do a good job building their world and characters as well as instilling dynamics that make the reader want to continue reading, but the closer they get to the ‘grand climax’, the lower the quality of the overarching story becomes.  This has not been a problem for R. Scott Bakker.  The Prince of Nothing trilogy started strong and ended with a bang.  Now, with the publishing of the fourth and final book in The Aspect-Emperor series, The Unholy Consult (2017), Bakker proves no fluke.  Ending with a BANG, it’s a veritable fireworks display that is everything avid readers have been hoping it would be.

Normally I give a brief plot introduction in my reviews, but for The Unholy Consult it seems unnecessary.  For those who have read The Great Ordeal, that is the introduction (and if you haven’t read it, you shouldn’t be reading this review).  Besides, Bakker includes a few pages at the beginning of The Unholy Consult, as he has done with all the series’ books thus far, summarizing events in Earwa. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Review of Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett



When I was young and believed in the Christian god, a few questions nagged at the back of my mind: every religion seems to have its own holy book, its own cosmology, its own sacred rote and routine, and its own unshakable belief it is the One. True. Religion.  How can they all be right?  And isn’t it a bit funny that the majority of people end up believing the religion they were raised closest too—the easy road?  Thankfully these questions, along with the realization of a lot of other logical fallacies, achieved prominence to the point I gave up on Christianity, and organized religion in general.  I can say I am a happier person for it.  But what about the people for whom such mythologies are necessary—existence unthinkable without some religious framework to explain it?  Chris Beckett’s 2016 Daughter of Eden, third in the Eden series, answers this question, and in the process forms the perfect bookend to the original novel, Dark Eden.

More than 200 years have passed since the events of Dark Eden.  Johnfolk, Davidfolk, and Jefffolk have started spreading themselves over the known parts of Eden and established a variety of villages, even a few bigger towns.  At the outset of the novel a woman names Angela is rowing across World Pool to sell goods at a Davidfolk village.  The trip is cut short, however, when she sees in the distance a small fleet of Johnfolk, armed to the teeth, coming across the water.  Returning to her village to raise the alarm, Angela, her family, and fellow villagers flee into the woods in an attempt to escape.  They run and run, until, encountering the most hoped for and yet seemingly unlikely thing that could ever happen on all of Eden.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Review of 2084: The Anthology ed. by George Sandison



I think it’s fair to say George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four is one of the most enduring novels of the 20th century.  Playing off real and perceived fears regarding communist states, there remain a small number of governments exemplifying the tyranny of Big Brother even in the 21st century.  But brainwashing and oppression are not always a grand political scheme orchestrated from the very top.  It likewise exists in other aspects of life, from race to culture, shopping to beauty.  Feeling the time ripe to discover the breadth of ideas the term Orwellian has come to span, George Sandison, editor at Unsung Stories, decided to commission a bevy of writers to produce short stories offering a contemporary perspective on the quiet ways brainwashing, "brainwashing", and oppression might be used, or are currently being used, among us.  2084: The Anthology the result, it is a surprisingly varied anthology of original material that stands out as one of the year’s best.

Gaining momentum with time, the anthology opens a touch slow.  “Babylon” by Dave Hutchinson attempts to present a future European Union as tyrannical for its immigration policies.  Packing too many large ideas into a small story, it tells of a Somalian refugee being smuggled across the Mediterranean and the racial surprise he has planned upon arrival on European soil.  Seeming to run with far-left opinion (ironically the type of faith in media Orwell sought to expose), it does not recognize the effort the EU (not without resistance, natch) has made bringing in refugees and immigrants.  Worse yet, Hutchinson doesn’t play fair when stacking the deck entirely in his favor: the Somali man is without creed or religion, and possesses a cosmopolitan knowledge of language, culture, and James Bond-style counter intelligence, i.e. not very representative of the average Somalian immigrant, just as a European Union bent on preventing all non-white immigrants from entering the continent is likewise not wholly representative…  In something loosely resembling a morlocks/eloi situation, “Here Comes the Flood” by Desirina Boskovich is a bleak future wherein the current capitalist glut has consumed most of the world’s resources, forcing the affluent to live underground. The people living on the surface under the burning sun fight to join them while the people underground fight to keep them out.  Told from a domestic perspective, this dichotomy comes across as very human.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Console Corner: Review of Firewatch



As I mentioned in the intro to why I opened Console Corner—the section of Speculiction devoted to video games, it has been a learning experience discovering what are considered ‘good games’ by people who never left the gaming scene for many years and returned, as I did.  One such game that has received a good amount of positive buzz in the past year or more is Firewatch by Campo Santo.  The internet steering me in the right direction with Witcher 3, Journey, and Inside, I put to the test its Firewatch recommendation.  I’ll take the blame for that one.

Firewatch is a few months in the life of Henry, a middle-aged, middle-class man who has escaped to a Wyoming national park to be a fire warden in the hopes of escaping personal and relationship troubles.  But trouble is waiting.  Stationed at a remote lookout tower, a pair of teens begin setting off fireworks in the dry forest on his first day, requiring Henry to chase them down.  Returning to the tower that evening, he sees a strange man lurking in the trees, and later discovers someone has rifled through his belongings in the tower.  But the strangest thing of all is fellow warden Delilah, a woman stationed at a nearby tower he has contact with only through his radio.  Henry hears her saying things that likely she doesn’t want him hearing…  

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review of Pattern Recognition by William Gibson



While perhaps not the greatest film ever made, Duplicity nevertheless touches upon a premise rarely used: corporate spying.  ‘Corporate’ of course the key word in that term, lots of spying has been done in films, just little of it oriented toward gathering information that can be used to gain some advantage on the market over competitors.  But a company’s undisclosed research data is a concrete entity; it can be stolen, leading to the question: what of the more subjective elements leading to a firm’s success on the market—branding, design, logos, and marketing campaigns?  And what of the underworld below?  William Gibson’s 2003 Pattern Recognition is the novel capturing this idea in a contemporary, corporate world.

Cayce is a ‘coolhunter’.  At some conscious level she is aware of what logos or ideas will be popular and which not, and as such hires out her abilities to various companies, providing recommendations on their latest brand proposals.  Contracted by a marketing consultant named called Blue Ant at the outset of Pattern Recognition, Cayce is asked to evaluate the latest logo designs for a London company.  Once her evaluation is complete, however, her work is not done for Blue Ant.  Brought on full-time by the CEO, a man named Bigend, Cayce is asked to track down the maker of indie films being leaked onto the internet.  The films causing a serious buzz, Bigend gives Cayce an unlimited credit card and sends her off to find the creator.  Where Cayce ends up, however, is anything but the corporate backroom.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Review of Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories by Terry Bisson



There is the NY Times bestseller list, and then there are the numerous high quality writers plugging away in dark corners, producing what is often more considered, more sophisticated material for quieter applause.  Jonathan Carrol, Maureen McHugh, James Morrow, James Blaylock, John Kessel, Caitlin Kiernan, Kij Johnson, Andy Duncan, Rachel Swirsky—these are writers whose names are known by a few, but who will never achieve bestseller lists without lowering the standards for their work.  Terry Bisson is one of these writers, and his first collection Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories (1993) is a great example why.

The collection opening on the title piece, “Bears Discover Fire” is the elegaic story of an uncle, his nephew, and his old-fashioned mother as they sit around a campfire in the woods.  Portraying the end of America’s Golden Age in anything but obvious terms, it’s intriguing to discover the directness of the title even as the story’s message unfolds allegorically.  Wonderful commentary on so-called ‘literary fiction’ and ‘speculative fiction’ by using the creators themselves, “The Two Janets” hits the proverbial nail on the head in identifying the relationship between the two, and does so using the most obvious elements yet combining them in less than obvious fashion.  The collection contains several dialogue-only stories, of which “They're Made Out of Meat” is the first.  Two aliens discussing the finding of a strange species made of meat on a planet called Earth, the pair have an amusing dialogue before a dose of cold, sober reality grounds the story in human perspective.  Likely the most standard (i.e. plot and character driven) piece in the collection, “Over Flat Mountain” tells of a long haul truck driver and the hitchhiker he picks up crossing the recently uplifted Appalachians.  Now eighteen miles in height, the mountains force transport truckers to don air suits and have specific medicines available for low atmosphere.  They also give need to a certain readiness for evolutionary changes brought about by the rise in elevation…

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review of The Twilight Pariah by Jeffrey Ford



The horror genre is so intrinsically limited in scope that the past one hundred+ years of such stories have brought us to the point where the only way to be original is to instill new genre blood (romance, fantasy, etc.).  All other stories have been written, or the interstices are so minimal as to be almost negligible.  This means writers who want to till the same ground must bring their best chops to the table to ensure their oh so familiar material is at least sound in technique, and thus make the reading enjoyable at the surface level.  I believe this is the best way to describe Jeffrey Ford’s 2017 The Twilight Pariah (Tor.com).

A haunted house story, The Twilight Pariah tells of a trio of friends on summer break from university.  Maggie is studying archeology, and convinces the other two, Russell and Henry, to join her on a mini-venture to an abandoned mansion to dig through the outhouse pit in the hopes of finding some antiques that might earn them a little spending money.  The digging needing to be done at night as the three are unsure who has property rights to the mansion, strange sounds accompany their late night excavations, culminating in an unbelievable, otherworldy find at the bottom of the pit.  Wrapping and stuffing it into the trunk of Maggie’s car, the three head back to town, only for stranger things to start happening.  People being murdered in their sleep as the trio seek answers to their find, the sleepy little Midwestern town will never be the same.*

Monday, August 21, 2017

Non-fiction Review of Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding



I grew up in a very rural area.  (Population of my township—not quite town—was 450.)  White collar jobs essentially limited to doctors in the regional hospital, bank execs, and the occasional, lucky entrepreneur (all in the next town over), the majority of people are salt of the earth: laborers, teachers, mechanics, clerks, farmers, housewives, shop owners, the elderly, etc.  And, like so many other small towns (and townships) in the latter part of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, my area is affected by poverty and higher usage of illegal drugs.  A close relative of mine, in fact, died of an overdose recently.  Believing I had an understanding of why, I nevertheless jumped at the chance to read Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town (2009) to find out just how country music, big truck tires, and a low-key sense of howdy could be so affected. 

A mix of case study and research journalism, Methland grounds itself in the empiricism of small town of Oelwein, Iowa, all the while connecting the dots of the town’s meth problem to the larger sectors of pharmaceuticals, criminal law, sociology, and politics.  From the town’s mayor to one of its biggest addicts, the police chief to one of the region’s major dealers, Mexican drug cartels to government legislation, FBI officials to the owner of Oelwein’s most popular watering hole, the key players locally are given space to present their view, even as research into the breadth and history of meth legislation, distribution, manufacture, logistics, drug labs, and other vectors are presented at the local, national and international levels.  In short, Reding cannot be accused of leaving a stone in the arena of methamphetamine abuse, unturned.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review of Moskva by Jack Grimwood



If one reads books long enough, there are certain types of fiction that get old, very quickly.  Adhering too closely to formula and adding nothing with style, some detective novels, for example, wear themselves thin within a few pages.  Seeming to forget that it’s possible to write familiar material in an engaging manner, things like prose, writing between the lines, presentation, making bolder assumptions of reader intelligence, and other elements of more sophisticated fiction get tossed aside in favor of trying to write the latest bestseller.  Thankfully, Jon Courtenay Grimwood does not forget.  His 2016 Moskva (as written by “Jack Grimwood”) is a brilliantly styled murder/espionage story set in Soviet Russia in the 1980s that does nothing new in broad terms, and yet does everything flawlessly at the detail level, resulting in a roughly familiar yet highly engaging novel—the perfect relaxing read. 

Tom Fox is in exile, of sorts.  British intelligence angry at a rash choice he made involving the deaths of others, he has been sent to Moscow on a low-grade assignment to gather information about the influence of religion on the state.  Set in the mid-80s, Soviet power is in effect but on the wane, meaning more government officials are reaching out to attend the social gatherings of the city’s various embassies, including the British.  Meeting one such important Soviet official at a gathering, Fox likewise runs into the daughter of the British ambassador at the same party, a rebellious fifteen-year old named Anna who reminds Fox of his own daughter, now dead.   The teenager turning up missing in the days that follow, Tom is called into the diplomat’s office and his mission quickly changed from information gathering to investigating a missing child.  The trouble for Fox is, the deeper he digs, the deeper the implications for Anna, British-Soviet relations, and even his own life.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review Slade House by David Mitchell



Four years passing between David Mitchell’s 2010 The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and 2014’s The Bone Clocks, it’s fair to say the author took his time working on the latter.  With the 2015 publication of Slade House, it’s also fair to say he had some material on the cutting room floor.

A frame narrative, Slade House tells the story of five people who, in some way or another (usually death), get themselves involved with the mysterious, titular abode and the Anchorites (beings who consume people’s souls to remain young) who live there.  The incidences occurring in a nine-year cycle the Anchorites require to keep the ritual alive, the five people’s stories slowly concatenate into a moment that irrevocably changes the future of Slade House forever.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Review of Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick



The German legend of Johann Georg Faust has been reworked and revisioned multiple, multiple times over the centuries.  From Goethe to Bulgakov, deals with the devil leading to one’s loftiest desires are abound.  Contemporary writers likewise throwing their hat in the ring, in 1997 Michael Swanwick delivered Jack Faust.  Running with the legend’s roots but taking a societal rather than personal approach, Faust is tormented by the world’s knowledge, but he is not the only one…

Opening on a familiar note, Johann Faust begins the story burning the books in his library.  Declaring the majority of written knowledge to be rubbish, he frightens his assistance Wagner with his antics.  Soon enough Faust is contacted by a demon from another galaxy calling himself Mephistopheles, and made an offer: all the knowledge in the world, no strings attached.  Believing in the quality of his fellow human beings and that the knowledge will be used for good, Faust accepts the offer, all the while Mephistopheles secretly assumes it will lead to humanity’s downfall.  Turns out, both can somehow be right.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Review of The Old Axolotl by Jacek Dukaj



In many ways, the ebook has revolutionized reading.  It brings to the table aspects of interaction that are simply impossible with the standard paperback, from size considerations to word searches.  I can fit thousands of books in a tiny space and find out how many times the word ‘esoteric’ appears in a given text.  But does anyone believe the format has been fully explored?  Jacek Dukaj, in his 2015 The Old Axolotl, believes no.   Seeking to push the medium to the next stage of its evolution, Dukaj tells a dynamic, post-human story that complements the evolution of ebooks in abstract terms.  Caught somewhere in the crossfire of Charles Stross on the aesthetic side and Stanislaw Lem on the thought-provoking side, yes, it’s an ambitious novel—if that is the name for such a medium.

A radioactive horizon effect wipes humanity from the Earth at the beginning of The Old Axolotl.  The only people who “survive” are those able to upload themselves to data infrastructure before the horizon line hits, most of whom are online gamers.  Arising in the aftermath are varied societies of mechs powered by the uploaded personalities.  But it’s a limited existence.  Eventually reaching a ceiling of knowledge that AIs and machines can achieve, the mechs begin to face similar ontological quandaries as humanity currently does.  The proposed solution is the creation of new biological lifeforms the mechs call axolotl.  But where does life on Earth evolve from there?  

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Console Corner: Inside



Of the Nintendo generation, I was raised on 2D platformers.  From Super Mario Brothers to Contra, Metroid to Castlevania, such games worked with the limitations of the 8-bit system.   When the Playstation and Nintendo 64 came around and 3D games became a realizable possibility, a new world opened to gamers—for as blocky and clunky as it seemed to be.  But as consoles and computers increased in power, the lack of realism began slipping away.  Today, games like Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid: Phantom Pain, and Horizon: Zero Dawn present characters and settings just a hair removed from live stage action cinematics.  Why then would a developer utilize such powerful technical potential to go back and create a 2D platformer?  Playdead’s 2016 Inside is the perfect answer.

Building off the style and premise of their earlier Limbo, Inside throws a young boy into another black and white world fraught with puzzles and peril.  But gameplay and theming has significantly matured.  Where Limbo was a procession of puzzles with little to nothing linking the parts, albeit clever, Inside creates cohesion twixt its brainteasers.  Using a common aesthetic, the placement of related background elements, and recurring motifs, the game builds a story that, dare I say, synthesizes into a holistic vision, a vision that asks veiled but poignant questions regarding free will.  More than just a standard 2D puzzler, it’s an experience wherein the individual pieces aggregate into a larger whole that will have the player pondering the thinking, and not just how to solve certain puzzles.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review of Upon this Rock by David Marusek



Even Adam Smith knew, the market is not kind.  And when you have a market saturated by minimum viable products (i.e. easily accessible, watered down slush), then it’s likely the more subtle, intelligent material for sale will be overlooked.  In short, I thought the market had chewed up and spit out David Marusek years ago.  His stories “The Wedding Album”, Counting Heads, and the like were just too niche, too sophisticated to be appreciated by a wider, paying audience which typically supports writers’ careers.  And then last month in NetGalley I find his return.  More than fifteen years since his last published effort, David Marusek is back with the first in a planned trilogy of science fiction novels: Upon this Rock (2017, Stack of Firewood Press). 

Set on the very edges of civilization in the Alaskan wilderness, Upon this Rock opens at the border of a national park where the park service and a fundamentalist Christian cult are at odds over land ownership.  Poppy Prophecy, tyrannical leader of the cultists, exerts control over every aspect of his family’s lives, from clothes to punishments, daily activities to prayer.  Preaching the apocalypse is nigh, he prepares them for nuclear winter in an abandoned mine that may or may not be on park property.  Jace Kuliak is one of the park rangers caught up in the feud.  A hard-working, pot-smoking young man, he finds himself not as passionate about irritating Poppy’s family as some of his fellow rangers, and is content enjoying the beauty and peace of the park and his daily work.  But one evening both Jace and Poppy witness a strange light in the sky that seems to descend onto the park.  The object eventually found, nothing is the same for the rangers in the aftermath—Poppy’s cult family, Jace, or the world.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers



Tim Powers is for me a writer whose development is more obvious than a lot of others.  I cringe reading such early efforts as An Epitaph in Rust and The Drawing of the Dark.  One can see a wonderful imagination on the page, but not the talent to execute on a line by line basis.  In The Anubis Gates, On Stranger Tides, and Dinner at Deviant’s Palace a synthesis starts to be seen.  I daresay The Stress of Her Regard (1989) is the transition point from those novels to where we see Powers today, as Last Call and the novels which follow feature the author in his best form.  Thankfully, unique imagination has remained a constant throughout. 

The Stress of Her Regard was Powers’ most ambitious novel to date.  Daring to feature some of the English language’s most renowned poets as primary characters—Bryon, Shelley, and Keats among them—the resulting storyline tells of a British doctor, Michael Crawford, and the bad luck he has while out drinking the night before his wedding.  Accidentally leaving his ring on a statue, he returns the next day to find the object now clenched in a stone fist, unable to be loosened.  All goes well in the wedding, however, that is until the next morning when Crawford awakes to find his new bride’s body mutilated in terrifying fashion beside him.  A whole world of dark horrors slowly unveiling itself in the aftermath, Crawford escapes Britain, but does so into the arms of a creature which would rather have him dead.  Cognizant of the lamia’s true power, he turns to British poets who are traveling the continent for help.  Trouble is, they too are haunted in their own way.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review of Nation by Terry Pratchett



Mythopoeic if there ever was, Terrry Pratchett’s 2008 novel Nation is an Adam and Eve clash of native and western values, with the cream that rises to the top taken to drink.  A wave from a tsunami wave carrying the native Mau and the colonial Daphne to the same beach, slowly the survivors of Mau’s tribe and Daphne’s shipwreck begin appearing onshore, fleshing out the two sides’ differences but forcing them to establish compromises—yes, as only Pratchett can write.  

It should be stated that Nation is not a Discworld novel.  Pratchett sticks to the real world, but given he does nothing to change his style of writing, nevertheless feels very much like a Discworld offering.  Mau, Daphne, or any of the other characters could quite easily appear on the streets of Ankh-Morpork.  Thus for anyone concernd non-Discworld = non-Pratchett, fear not: Nation could not be mistaken for anything but a Pratchett offering.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review of The Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell



David Mitchell’s oeuvre, as relatively small as it it to date, has nevertheless covered a range of plots, settings, and characters.  But fitting in there, sometimes small, sometimes big, always seems the Orient, and most often Japan.  From the Japanese man working in the jazz shop in Ghostwritten to the main character and setting of number9dream, Japan seems to play a role in most of Mitchell’s works.  In 2010’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell turns to the island nation for setting, specifically the Sakoku era, but does so from a majority European perspective.

Believing that accepting a clerk position with the Dutch East Indian Company in Japan for five years will land him the woman he desires once he returns to the Netherlands, Jacob de Zoet reluctantly says goodbye to his homeland and makes the long ocean voyage to the other side of the Earth at the opening of the novel.  The outgoing company steward leaving behind a trail of corruption, de Zoet has been sent along with a strong-minded captain with the mission of setting things right to get commerce flowing with the Japanese on the up and up once again.  Japanese restrictions on European presence in Nagasaki highly intemperate, de Zoet is disappointed to learn that none of his cultural hopes or expectations have any real hope of being fulfilled.  From language to Japanese daily life, all are essentially cut off.  But de Zoet does strike up something of sympathetic relationship with the Japanese translator, and from it meets the local European doctor who is allowed beyond the walls of the stockade, and through that has talks with a woman that may just change his mind about returning to the Netherlands, Miss Aibagawa.  With Dutch power fading in the Orient and English power on the rise, trouble looms in the backdrop, even as de Zoet hacks his way through the rough characters he must work alongside each day.  When an English ship is spotted on the horizon, cannon doors open, trouble starts brewing.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Non-fiction: Review of Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram by Iain Banks



‘Fate’ doesn’t fit.  ‘Marriage made in heaven’, does.  What’s the combo?  Whiskey, Scotland, and Iain Banks, of course.  In other words, publishers finally savvied up; in 2002 they commissioned Banks to write a book of non-fiction—his first and last—about whiskey.  Taking his own path, the result is a travelogue cum history cum taste-test cum ramble about the Scottish national beverage called Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram (2003).

A very loose, heart-on-his-sleeve, Banks-ian approach, Raw Spirit does whiskey justice.  The reader can see the Banks who usually lies between the lines in his novels come front and center. Far from a formal discourse on history or chemistry, pedagogery is limited to a brief review of whiskey’s origins and the distilling process.  After, all the focus is on the merits of individual expressions—the different types of whiskeys—encountered while traveling around Scotland. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

And the drop is due to...



The rate of reviewing has dropped off on this site for more than a few of months.  I’m still reading a lot, just not as much as I used to.  And of course there’s a reason.   Actually, there are two.  But first things, first.

A year and a half ago, just before the holidays, my wife’s family asked what we wanted for Christmas.  Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on perspective—I was not asked an opinion on the decision, and instead of requesting something relevant to our ongoing (lifetime?) house renovation, my wife asked for, of all things, a Playstation 4.  What?!?!?, I thought.  We’re in our late thirties.  The last time either of us played video games was university.  We could have a new front door for the price of one of those things! Secretly, of course, I was also aware of what a brain-suck video games can be; like chocolate they are oh so good, and yet oh so bad—bad in the sense that they put to strong test one’s time management and self-control to. not. play. just. one. more. level.  (Despite the decades since last playing, I remain in the court that video games are a positive thing, depending on the game and how the time is spent of course, and I think cognitive science backs this up.)  But Christmas time came, and there sitting under the tree, was a PS4.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Review of The Mindwarpers by Eric Frank Russell



One of the interesting aspects of science fiction is that it is a form sometimes used to criticize science, or more precisely the application of science, rather than glorify it.  From Barry Malzberg to J.G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury to Pat Cadigan, Tom McCarthy to James Morrow—these and other writers in the field have in some way expressed a wariness at technological change and its impact, intended and unintended, on people and society.  The quantity of such fiction dropping since the days vast and quick technological change first threatened, change has almost become the norm.  Getting more outdated with each day, Eric Frank Russell’s 1965 The Mindwarpers is one such book.  Republished as an ebook in 2017 by Dover Publications, the message at its heart, however, transcends time.

Richard Bransome works for one of the most advanced science research laboratories in the country.  Consequently, it is one of the most heavily guarded.  Multiple layers of security prevent unwanted access from the outside, even as the scientists and researchers internally impose their own unwritten code about secrecy in their work, hierarchy, and work ethic.  Bransome is happy in his job, but when people around him start leaving the compound, some even disappearing, things start to get fishy.  Paranoia settling in, Bransome soon finds himself in hiding from people who would like to uncover the secrets of his past as well as scientific work from his present.  Trouble is, are his fears real or imagined?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Review of The Moon and the Other by John Kessel



In the culture wars of the contemporary era, it’s fair to say gender is one of, if not the top subject inciting discussion, criticism, and (inevitably) argument.  From ultra-conservatives to ultra-liberals, the netwaves are awash with facts, opinions, and all manner of material between.  In these wars, it is the blessed privilege of science fiction to actually play out imagined gendered scenarios. From mature efforts like Margaret Atwood’s brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale to less mature (i.e. zeitgeist) works like Naomi Aldeman’s The Power, Suzee McKee Charnas’ challenging Walk to the End of the World to Theodore Sturgeon’s broad-minded Venus Plus X, James Tiptree Jr.’s paranoid yet intelligent ouevre to Aliya Whiteley’s childishly rebellious The Arrival of the Missives, experimenting with gender and gender interrelations has become a sub-genre unto itself—it still can’t compete with military sf or space opera, those bastions of traditionalism, but nevertheless…  Throwing his business card into the gendered sf hat is John Kessel and his matriarchal though male oriented thought experiment, The Moon and the Other (2017). 

Only adding to the idea that sf novels set on the moon currently are in vogue, The Moon and the Other takes advantage of its lunar setting to re-imagine society.  A scattering of colonies and settlements pockmarking the surface, all feature variations of patriarchal societies similar to those we have on Earth, particularly the biggest, richest colony of Perseopolis and Cyrus, it’s leader, who wants to recapture Persian glory of old.  But one colony is organized along different societal lines, the Society of Cousins.  A matriarchal society, men and women mix freely in the society, but men’s rights are limited in terms of child custody, voting, and the ability to organize into groups or political parties.  Men can be scientists, judges, even serve as members of political boards, but are kept in relative isolation as outright male authority and male-only groups are hindered.  Instead, sexual capability, leisurely pursuits, sports, and other non-politically invasive habits are heavily promoted within the male community by the cousins, and as a result, most men take the easy route of pampering and (relative) celebrity.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review of Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore



Alternate history is a fairly common element of today’s science fiction scene.  It’s not unusual to read about a novel or encounter a short story that takes some key aspect of history as we know it and flips it on its head.  From the lack of the Black Plague in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt to Michael Chabon’s Jewish habitation of Alaska in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s exploration of a 21-st century Ottoman empire in the Arabesk trilogy to Adam Roberts’ wild, lilliputian Swiftly, the past decade or so has seen a significant number of such stories.  But there was a vanguard—at least if the scattering of stories over several decades can be described as such.  (‘First wave’ sounds just as equivocal…)  One of the key, initial forays into history through an imaginary lens is Ward Moore’s 1953 Bring the Jubilee, which is being released in ebook form by Open Road Media in 2017.

Its Jonbar point the American Civil War, Bring the Jubilee looks into the idea ‘what if the South won’?  The story of Hodge Backmaker, son of a poor farmer in what’s left of the United States of America (essentially the Union), the young man breaks free of his rural home at an early age and heads to New York City—an impoverished metro compared to the grand, lavish cities of the Confederate States of America.  Getting lucky and finding work with a book printer, Hodge spends the next few years of his life learning the trade.  And he learns much more.  The book printer’s essentially a front, namely that of printing propaganda and counterfeiting money, Hodge learns of ongoing secret operations to build a Grand Army and restore the United States to its former glory.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Review of The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow

Many films and tv series have featured Hitler’s Third Reich.  And while the clipped ‘stache and heavily-greased forelock are the Fuhrer’s trademarks for personal style, it’s inevitable that a sharply-edged color-scheme of red, white, and black banners and bunting play an equal part in defining the Nazi backdrop.  Hitler not a stupid man, he was aware of the power of art toward helping define an ideology’s image—a visual commonality to abstract concepts.  Going back to the previous world war, James Morrow’s The Asylum of Dr. Caligari (2017, Tachyon) takes a metaphorically satirical look at said power.

It’s 1913 and Francis Wyndham, in a flurry of youthful exuberance, abandons his life in Pennsylvania as a would-be artist and heads to gay Paris, hoping to become apprentice to the great one himself, Picasso. Kicked out the door before he even has a chance to collect his portfolio, Wyndham must switch to plan B.  Given an intriguing offer by another artist, Wyndham heads to Luxembourg through a cloud of impending war in Europe, and the asylum run by the strange Dr. Caligari.  Outbreak imminient, Wyndham settles into his role as the asylum’s master artisan, but not without bits of mystery, including patients who may be more sane than they appear, as well as the twinkle-eyed Dr. Caligari’s own late-night painting projects.  And then the crescendo of war breaks…

Monday, June 19, 2017

Review of Frontera by Lewis Shiner



The transition from the Silver Age of science fiction to the New Age brought with it a change in perspective on mankind’s chances in space.  Where Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and others took a Betty Crocker life in the solar system and beyond as par for the course, Ballard, Malzberg, and other authors had a more jaded view of our prospects.  The 70s saw something of a return to space fervor, but cyberpunk in the 80s once again put a grittily realistic spin on humanity’s relationship to technology, socio-political evolution, and life in space.  A lot of cyberpunk’s focus related to street tech and life, cybernetic enhancements, and data hacking thanks to the success of William Gibson, it’s easy to forget that its aspirations were broader in aim.  Lewis Shiner’s 1984 Frontera, on top of being a debut novel, is a prime example of cyberpunk that does not fit the classic mold in aesthetic terms, yet adheres to its political and human tenets wonderfully.
                                                                                                          
With the collapse of world government in the face of mega-corporations, society has drastically changed form, and many public programs have fallen by the wayside.  One such program is the terraforming Mars mission—the colonists essentially left on their own by Earth, NASA now disbanded.  But one of the mega-corps, Pulsystems, has caught wind of a new technology that has evolved on Mars, and sends a ship with a few choice personnel, including the strange Kane, to learn more—in secret, if possible.  Arriving planetside, Kane begins spending time among the colonists, digging ever deeper into their strange fabric to learn if any new tech exists, even as his own mind, and what strange things implanted by Pulsystems, threatens to shoot off course.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Review of Borne by Jeff VanderMeer



Short review: Biopunk mythopoeia better a novella

Long review: While many genre fans were already aware of Jeff VanderMeer thanks to his years of writing and editing short stories as well as his novel-length works in the Ambergris setting, it was the Area X: Southern Reach trilogy which put VanderMeer’s name on the broader map of fiction.  Almost universally well-received, the three 2014 novels appeared in genre awards lists as well mainstream bestseller lists.  The three written and released in a very short period of time, it’s no surprise VanderMeer took a long break before releasing his next novel, 2017’s Borne.  Trouble is, was it too much time, or too much expectation for the follow-up?

A focused look at two people embedded in a near-future setting twisted Weird by advances in bio-technology, Borne opens with a woman, Rachel, scavenging for survival in a post-Collapse Earth.  Finding a small, blue-green blob-plant creature, she names it Borne and takes it home to her erstwhile companion, Wick.  Wick a drug dealer for the mutant bear overlord named Mord, he brews his bio-narcotics in an abandonded swimming pool.  Wanting to dissect Borne rather than nurture and raise him, Wick believes Borne is one of the many discarded creations of the Company, a biotech corp largely responsible for the ecological Collapse.  But Rachel convinces Wick to let the little creature live, and soon enough, it starts growing and learning.  Thing is, what kind of world is Borne growing up into?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review of The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch



Short review: eco-feminist manifesto

Long review: I find myself at odds with the vast majority of the rhetoric in the contemporary political scene.  I shake my head in amazement and fear at many of the statements made by both mega-conservatives and extreme liberals.  I do not think a wall along the Mexican border is an answer to America’s immigration/financial problems, nor do I think gender is fluid, something possible to ignore or forget.  Regarding the latter, I’m mystified by voices which would have us all be pan-sexual—in physical form and in orientation.  Such voices seem to be ignoring key elements of being human, namely that we are first animals, secondly civilized, and that understanding and working with this hierarchy as best we can is the way forward, not pretending it doesn’t exist.  But this is just one of the main reasons Lidia Yuknavitch’s 2017 novel The Book of Joan is so damn intriguing.

Heavily introspective atavism in space, The Book of Joan focuses on the life of Christine, prisoner in a panopticon orbiting Earth.  Earth nearly destroyed by nuclear war, she is sexless, genderless, and has had her skin reduced to a papery white by exposure to radiation.  Watched day-in and day-out by affluent overseers in the station, she awaits her fiftieth birthday, a point at which her body will be recycled for its water.  That day fast approaching, Christine decides to write a chronicle of her experiences on Earth with the despot Jean de Mar, the man who played a strong role in bringing about the nuclear destruction, and Joan, the young woman who opposed him.  Christine tattooing the story on her body, it’s only appropriate the resulting perspective is likewise corporeal.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Review of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett



Sometimes I’m behind the times, and with Robert Jackson Bennett’s 2014 City of Stairs, for certain I am—or was.  Distrusting the extreme hype upon release, I waited for the novel to settle a little in cultural memory, and in 2017 finally got around to it, (noting, with even more suspicion that the sequel City of Blades did not have the same level of reader response.)  Worth the hype?  Let’s see…

City of Stairs is contemporary epic fantasy, equal parts Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, and China Mieville (on his monster days).  Featuring magic and spells, alternate worlds, and old-world gods, all driven by a classic murder mystery plot, Bennett covers familiar market material while creating a world partially unique—at least unique enough.  He avoids a good vs. evil dichotomy by adding human detail to an occupied city setting, but keeps most of the focus on plot progression, fantastical reveals, numinous objects, military invasions, and a grand climax that is the stuff of classic epic fantasy.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review of Barkskins by Annie Proulx



Humanity’s written history perpetual for such a time now, fiction set in yesteryear has become an area of writing unto itself—a whole branch of novels and books overlaying stories of their own onto facts as we know them.  And the success of well-written historical fiction is natural; humanity remains as interested in its past as it does its future.  The real challenge for a writer of such novels is to include an agenda relevant to the contemporary world.  Focusing on the history of North America’s forests, interweaving them with the tales of multiple generations of two families, with Barkskins (2016) Annie Proulx proves that historical fiction can be every bit as relevant as contemporary fiction.

Barkskins is the story of two indentured servants, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, and the generations of their families that disperse throughout the centuries that follow—blue collar to white, lumberjack to aristocrat.  Sent by their king in the mid 17th century to cut timber in Nouveau France, the two men arrive together in the same dense, mosquito-infested forest, but quickly move in different directions.  Sel remains on the land, indifferent to the mistreatment by his lord, and clears space for a family and livelihood.  Duquet, on the other hand, escapes servitude and puts into action ideas that will fulfill his dreams of being a man of empire.  Both men’s lives taking unexpected turns toward their respective goals, they live long enough to father children, children who carry on the family names in equally interesting and varied means.  But always the forests remains a part of their lives, even as it dwindles around them.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Review of Passion Play by Sean Stewart



There is very little cyberpunk which brings religion in as a major theme.  Its concerns largely technological, biological, existential, political, post-human, etc., most dystopian corporate futures seem to assume faith and belief-based systems have once and finally been drowned by ‘civilization’.  A peripheral element at best, it’s rare to see Christianity, Buddhism, or any other religion defining the terms on which a cyberpunk novel is written.  (I’m aware there are works like George Alec Effinger’s Maid series which feature Islam heavily, but the religion appears for setting and plot backdrop alone.  Effinger does not go into the meaning of its system in a silicon world.)  This is certainly what makes Sean Stewart’s 1992 novel Passion Play so intriguing - and thankfully re-released in 2017 by Dover Publications.

It is the dark, corporate near-future, and a group of Christian fundamentalists, calling themselves The Redemptionists, have taken political power in the United States.  In the opening chapter, investigator Diane Fletcher is called to the scene of a brutal murder—a woman stabbed to death in her apartment for reasons unclear.  Fletcher a shaper (person who can glean hints of underlying emotion or thought from other people in conversation), she begins investigating the case, and quickly discovers that a local reverend, a radical Redemptionist, took matters into his own hands and elected to kill the woman for the sin of adultery.  With little time to ruminate on the reverend’s honesty, Fletcher packs the man away to prison and inevitable death sentence, and is then called to the scene of another murder, this time the actor Jonathan Mask, a man positioned high in Redemptionist circles.  The murder suspects limited in number, Fletcher begins interviewing them one by one, but ultimately, finds her questions facing in a surprising direction.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review of The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett



Exceptional powers more a burden than a gift, Cyril Hayes—company man to the powerful McNaughton Corporation—lives his corporate agent life in a haze of opium and alcohol.  Able to discern the inner workings of people’s minds if he can spend a couple of hours with them, Hayes uses his talents for the benefit of the Corporation, sniffing out moles and frauds, informants and spies, and always in a back room.  The unions in the metropolis of Evesden growing ever more powerful, Hayes’ investigative work begins to get uglier and uglier.  Dead bodies turning up in the underground and canals, the threat of violence and revolt among the men laboring each day in the factories and mines grows more palpable each day.  But one set of murders is stranger than normal.  A whole tram full of corpses found with the tinest of red holes in each body, Hayes is asked to get involved as even the powerful McNaughton executives fear the unknown cause.  More and more corporate secrets uncovered in Hayes’ investigation, the city of Evesden—and the secrets lying beneath it—will never be the same.

The Company Man is a robust piece of entertainment.  Detective noir infused with dieselpunk and sci-fi, Bennett creates a nice blend that opens simple but escalates superbly into an ever-expanding storyline of who or what is behind the happenings.  Hayes is an alcohol drinking, opium smoking anti-hero of self-pitying proportions, but given the tale he’s caught up in, is difficult to outright dismiss given the reader’s desire to know more about the plot and setting.  The novel highly reminiscent of a Robert Charles Wilson offering, Bennett uses solid prose to patiently yet intriguingly build a scene that has the reader looking for answers.  Also like most Wilson stories, The Company Man exists at a distance from reality.  The characters are fairly realistic, but plot and sensawunda take steadier and steadier steps toward the forefront.  (Is it too much to point out that Wilson and Bennett also use three names?)  In short, it is a novel that may not possess much underlying substance, but remains a ripping good read.