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.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Review of Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence



With the emergence of any cultural phenomenon, there is the natural, human inclination to develop it as much as possible.  (In the publishing world, ‘develop’ often becomes ‘milk’.)  One of the easiest, most natural, and most obvious iterations is to go extreme—to take to the limit whatever key ingredients made the phenomenon a success to begin with.  Rock-n-roll began innocently enough, but one branch of that tree has become the cavernous, guttural death metal.  Blue jeans were once a workman’s clothing, yet now are a highly commoditized (sometimes shockgun blasted, sometimes acid soaked, sometimes intentionally frayed) article of high fashion.  Thus, when readers and writers of epic fantasy with gritty operatic undertones finally got together and agreed ‘grimdark’ had emerged as a thing, it was only natural that some of the next gen of writers tried to evolve it to the max.  Mark Lawrence’s 2011 The Prince of Thorns is that cavernous, shotgun-blasted extreme.

That intro perhaps longer than my actual ‘review’, The Prince of Thorns is an ambitious work of epic fantasy only in that it attempts to push upon the reader the most malevolent anti-hero possible, which, given the familiarity of everything else in the novel, comes across as a gimmick.  The most violent acts of dishonor and disloyalty committed in the name of daddy issues/victimhood, Lawrence says “Pshaw, so that’s grimdark, eh? I’ll show you G.R.I.M.D.A.R.K.” and throws an uber-Machievellian, sadomasochistic, megalomaniacal teen killer male the reader’s way.  Everything else about the novel rendered in standard epic fantasy form (Medieval-ish setting, sword fights, random bits of magic, monsters, massive battles, yawn…), the novel makes its mark only in that it is essentially a never ending parade of antipathetic scenes.  Little to no character development or emotional depth, bog-standard action scenes, and a whole world of take-that characterize the remainder.  Lawrence’s prose is clean, quite readable, and retains tight focus, but it struggles to keep afloat what seems reaction to the larger epic fantasy cultural phenomenon rather than any story with substance or depth. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review of Glimpses by Lewis Shiner



Despite the centuries that have passed, there remains hope that the final thirty chapters of Cao Xueqin’s manuscript for A Dream of Red Mansions will be found.  Gao E and Cheng Weiyuan made a valiant effort to fill in the missing story, but there remains a notable difference in quality, not to mention perpetual questions whether Gao and Cheng ended the tale as Cao Xueqin would have.  And the same holds true in the rock n’ roll world.  A hungry tape deck, record company restrictions, distraught musicians—all have at one time or another sabotaged or prevented the release of an album or music to the wider world.  But what if it were possible to go back in time and redress the situation?  What if we could return to the era and participate in the actual writing of the novel or making of the music—to read or hear how it was or could have been?  What if we could have unreleased albums like Brian Wilson’s Smile, Neil Young’s Homegrown, or Jimi Hendrix’s First Rays of the New Rising Sun?  Overlaying a powerful personal drama onto this premise in the context of American cultural shifts in the 60s and 80s is Lewis Shiner’s 1993 Glimpses.

A silver lining of sorts, days after his father passes away in a freak diving accident in 1989, Ray Shackleford discovers a lost Beatles track—in his imagination.  “The Long and Winding Road” a track fans are aware of but never heard, Shackleford manages to get a copy recorded on cassette.  He and his father never close, Ray brushes aside the death but can’t brush aside the beautiful bit of Beatles music, and so heads to LA to see a record producer.  Graham Hudson as convinced as Ray as to the power of the track, he agrees to fund The Doors album that never was, Celebration of the Lizard.  Shackleford’s marriage in a downward spiral, he retreats into the history and mythology of Celebration of the Lizard in an attempt to conjure up the album.  Unfortunately, he retreats into alcohol, as well.  Moving from one lost album to another in the aftermath, the beer and marriage problems only get worse, leading to the question: is there any salvation to resurrecting the greatest albums that never were?