Sunday, May 1, 2016

Review of Super-State by Brian Aldiss

The European Union is perhaps the grandest political experiment ever attempted in the history of mankind.  Attempting to unite a continent of people with millennia of wars, languages, and cultures under them, the EU has remained intact for two decades but recently shown signs of falling apart as economic issues and international strife apply pressure.  Sitting in his modernist gallery and slinging peanuts at the proceedings, science fiction great Brian Aldiss penned his response to the EU in 2002 with Super-State.

Super-State opens on a grand wedding.  Like passengers of the Titanic having their ball unbeknownst to the lurking iceberg, a stampede of horses eventually disrupts proceedings.  The narrative fanning out from there, a variety of characters and interests are introduced.  From a simple-minded writer of British romance to a German professor, a highly ideological artist to a struggling middle eastern immigrant, a warmongering general to astronauts on a mission to Europa, the list goes on, global warming and Islamic aggression taking their own toll on the continent.  Not intended as a representative spectrum of European society, Aldiss picks his battles as they accord with the cutting point/counter point of his commentary.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Review of Mindplayers by Pat Cadigan

Ordinarily cover copy is such a predictable element of a novel as to be rendered mundane.  Engaging this, superb that, powerhouse here, magnum opus there, best yet, never before seen—a superlative salad.  Not so with the Gollancz SF Collector’s edition of Mindplayers (1987).  Has a bite like a silk piranha,” is the one line by Bruce Sterling selected to characterize the novel.  Effectively capturing Cadigan’s unique combination of stylistic rhythm and tone with an acute integration of mind technology and human inclination, it’s an accomplished debut novel that launched of the career of one of sf’s top writers.

Almost a plotless novel (more a developing scene), Mindplayers is one of those stories that so delicately picks loose the strings of its premise as to keep the pages steadily turning to see what it will become next.  Dynamic in setting and possibility, Cadigan sustains the narrative through a variety of mind-bending technologies in emotional, mental, and physical contexts.  The core concept never allowed too far out of sight, however, human interest remains the lightning rod grounding the novel in reality.

Review of Flashback by Dan Simmons

Coming across reviews of Dan Simmons’ 2011 Flashback prior to reading the novel, I was struck by the number of times I came across the sentiment “good book, except for Simmons’ heavy right-wing views.  A lot of genre readers these days overly sensitive to the idea of what constitutes an extreme conservative view, the repeated commentary added intrigue to what the back cover synopsis promised to be a burning thriller.  (After all, don’t weapons floating freely in society go hand in hand with action plots?  How can it be so strange?)  Having now finished the novel, I’m able to comment myself.  Is Simmons’ view an extreme right wing one?  Depends on perspective…

Nick Bottom lives in a flashback haze.  The drug allowing him to recollect complete memories of times with his now-dead wife, he scrapes by on random private eye money, living in a cubbyhole in what was once a Denver shopping mall.  European and North American political weaknesses having allowed the Middle East to take power in the aftermath of nuclear war, most of the western world is now controlled by a Grand Caliphate.  Japan reverting to feudal ways, the land of the rising sun controls the majority of what is not in the Caliphate’s hands.  And it’s the leader of one of their largest, most influential corporations that calls Bottom to his office one day.  His son’s murder still unsolved, he hopes that Bottom, who was part of the original investigation, will be able to use flashback to relive the investigation and turn up clues that may have been missed.  With promise of all the drug he wants, Bottom readily accepts.  It’s going back through crime scene, however, that he gets a big surprise: peeking over the hood of a car is his wife.  Further revelations coming quickly thereafter, Bottom is dragged in. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Review of Space Opera by Jack Vance

The musical/theater troupe is an uncommon trope of science fiction (despite such noteworthy examples as Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentines Castle or Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven).  The sleekness of spaceships and the void of space seem to leave little room for singing, music, colorful troubadours and trilling sopranos.  Taking the term literally, Jack Vance’s 1965 Space Opera bucks the trend and puts an opera troupe through the rigors of inter-planetary travel—in highly amusing fashion.

Among other things, Vance is known for his singular voice.  No, not singing voice, rather his intentionally over-the-top baroque style that nods once or twice to P.G. Woodehouse; a good portion of the enjoyment of reading Vance are the thrusts and parries of dialogue.  Space Opera featuring a pompous patron of the arts at odds with a stuffy ship captain and sharp-tongued young woman, the medium would seem an opportunity for Vance’s style to shine.  It does. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Review of The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford

There are many things we look to writers for—entertainment to education, impossible imaginings to realistic character portrayals, exotic settings to empathetic circumstances, escape to comfort.  Whether it be hero or villain, victim or passerby, elite or quotidian, another thing some readers look for is the experience of living inside someone else’s head, and some of the most difficult heads to portray may be children’s.  Requiring the perfect balance of naivete and cleverness, only truly skilled writers capture the feel in believable fashion.  Long Island suburbia circa 1960 the setting, Jeffrey Ford’s The Shadow Year (2008) presents a year in the life of a boy on the cusp of adolescence that finds an author wonderfully capable of slipping inside the mind of a child.

Feeling strongly autobiographical, The Shadow Year is a nostalgic novel.  World history set aside in favor of personal details, however, the unnamed boy who leads a the story offers no views to the Vietnam or Cold Wars happening in the larger world, but can tell you the idiosyncrasies of the local ice cream man, how to properly t.p. a house on Halloween night, what issues to consult your sister on, who the most endearing pulp heroes are, what secret trails lead through the patch of woods behind the house to the school, who the worst bullies are, what triggers his mother’s anger, and a host of other information vital to the average 12-13 year old boy.  Snips and snails and puppy dog’s tails, Ford perfectly captures the delights of growing up in America’s Golden Age.  (More on the non-delights, later.)

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Reviews of The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata & Retribution Falls by Chris Wooding

The prism of fiction is shot through with many lines. There are lines on the edges that touch few works—outliers that are highly unique.  Others shoot through the middle, touching upon a seemingly endless line of books and stories that feel extremely similar.   The prism refracts light such that externally most stories appear different, but when when one looks closer at the network of lines, commonalities presents themselves.  Today I’ll be reviewing two books whose surfaces appear radically different, but at heart are almost the same story: Linda Nagata’s 2013 The Red: First Light and Chris Wooding’s 2009 Retribution Falls. 

One military sci-fi and the other steampunk, First Light and Retribution Falls are incomparable in broad terms of genre.  Nagata’s novel tells of futuristic soldiers fitted out with armored exoskeletons, fighting in wars they know not the reason for but who do their duty, anyhow.  That is, until one day a squad member discovers that…  Wooding’s novel tells of a retro-tech planet wherein dirty deals are being had left and right, and the crew of the pirate ship the Ketty Jay seem always to be in the thick of them.  Everything goes relatively smoothly for Captain Frey, that is, until he gets an offer too good to refuse…

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review of Amnesia Moon by Jonatham Lethem

Fractals are the aesthetic that first comes to mind finishing Jonathan Lethem’s 1995 Amnesia Moon.  The novel’s seemingly scattered pieces consisting of something from the schizoid nature of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (but presented in more abstract terms), the lucid dreams of Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (the continually shifting flow of narrative), and the post-apocalyptic, reality-slipping-under-foot of Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.  From these pieces Lethem creates a blend of his own that defies easy categorization.  A psychedelic post-apocalyptic realist wish-wash on the surface, hovering tantalizing just below seems an individual’s misgivings in modern life worth the scrutiny.

Amnesia Moon is ostensibly the story of Chaos, a loner living life in the western part of
a post-apocalyptic US.  The cause of the apocalypse unknown (though there are some wild stabs), Chaos lives off dog food and the teachings of a dreaming seer calling himself Kellog.  His own dreams becoming more powerful and disturbing, Chaos discovers that Kellog may not hold the sway he once did, and with a local hairy mutant girl, starts driving toward Los Angeles, hoping to find something more concrete to build a life on.  Encountering all varieties of the bizarre in what’s left of California, this proves an immense challenge.

Review of The Caryatids by Bruce Sterling

Most often referenced as the cyberpunk guy due to his initial association and promotion of the sub-genre, few remember Bruce Sterling is also the person who declared cyberpunk dead, and went on to write in different modes and with differing aims.  Craftily becoming one of the contemporary generation of writers’ most subtle satirists, novels like Holy Fire and Distraction nevertheless do not receive the same amount of backwards genre gaze as The Artificial Kid, Schismatrix, or Islands in the Net.  The subversiveness so delicate as to fly under the radar of most media, 2009’s The Caryatids is another novel to add to Sterling’s stellar portfolio of satire.

As deadpan flat as Sterling has ever written, it would be easy to mistake The Caryatids as a ‘boring’ novel.  Naturally, this would be to miss the point.  The story of four women, cloned sisters bred to rule the world in fact, Sterling draws a bead on a couple of significant topics through the offshoots of their lives.  Vera is an idealist, specifically an environmental activist putting her money where her mouth is and working to clean up a toxic waste area in Croatia for a major global company called Acquis.  Radmila is a Hollywood celebrity, or at least what counts for such in 2060, and is faced with some ‘serious’ decisions with regards to how her image is used, and to what degree her family’s interests play a part for the second major global player, the Dispensation.  The third sister is something of a medical specialist, though political butterfly also suits her.  Letting the winds of politics buffet her where they will—as long as she has time for love and adventure along the way—she finds herself caught up in the interests of the third major global player, the Chinese government.  And the fourth sister, well, she’s best introduced in the story.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Review of Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

Finding a groove and sticking with it, Guy Gavriel Kay has been writing historical fantasy with the same m.o. since the publication of A Song for Arbonne.  Aside from Ysabel, eight novels have twisted history ever so slightly into tell a tale that didn’t happen but might as well have given the verisimilitude. Drama reigning, the stories are plot and character oriented, with love, honor, virtue, and the other hallmark themes of opera front and center.  Kay’s latest, Children of Earth and Sky (2016, Berkley Publishing Group), does not find the needle jumping track.

Occurring in the years following Kay’s earlier duology Sarantine Mosaic, Children of Earth and Sky is set in the Eastern Mediterranean after the Osmanli have retaken Asharias.  The Balkan peninsula falling smack in the middle of Jaddite and Osmanli interests, the majority of the action occurs in and around the country of Dubrova, and the religious and political intrigue they are stuck in the middle of, not to mention generate on their own.  Spies and assassins flowing freely, a handful of characters ply the waters of fate doing what they think is best.  A pirate woman has her loyalties tested, a young artist is thrown into the thick of political tension by a commission he can’t refuse, and a merchant must put his martial skills to use in a court threatening to collapse around him—the starring characters among them. Their fates spread out through the years and places, we don’t always get what we want.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Review of Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

I admit to entering Nick Harkaway’s 2014 Tigerman with some trepidation.  For as enjoyable as his first two novels The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker are, the enjoyment is namely found in the off-the-wall usage of the English language and gonzo plotting.  Little of sub-textual note, the ninjas and clockwork devices, Mad Max truckers and nefarious world-takeover schemes keep the stories pulp at heart, meaning each must be tackled rather than eased into.  Thus looking ahead to his third novel, I had built up a store of energy to be ready to turn the first page.  It turns out preparation for Tigerman (2014) was unnecessary; it’s as refined an offering as Harkaway has produced to date.  

To say Tigerman is the novel I’ve been waiting for Harkaway to write would be to put too strong a spin on things.  To say that it is his most focused, relevant novel to date hits much closer to the point.  The language less dynamic but still tugging at the reins, Tigerman is Graham Greene on steroids.  Delicately balancing socio-political concerns with a story by turns warm-hearted and exciting, Harkaway creates a superhero motif with his right hand while flipping it on its head and examining it against a backdrop of post-colonialism with his left.