Sunday, May 31, 2015

"Ohh, say can you see, by the..."

It's rare that I get personally political on this blog, but yesterday, perusing through the news on Yahoo, I came across the banner you see above.  The second story is about Texas lawmakers passing a bill that would allow people to carry guns openly in public with the proper licenses, blah, blah, blah.  The fifth story, as the byline reads, is about a few hundred Arizonians rallying against Muslims. And yes, people brought their guns, as Arizona is also a state you are allowed to openly carry with the proper licenses, blah, blah, blah.  Thankfully, nobody was shot.

I'm an American.  I do not have the stars and stripes tattooed on my forehead, but there are certainly aspects of America that I love.  I love the creativity, the energy, and the general state of freedom one has to spend most of their money as they see fit, including on traveling sea to sea to see some of the world's most beautiful places.  The gun thing, however, is just fucked up.  Another way of putting this is, what do you get when you cross mass weapon availability with the inherent characteristics of humanity?  Answer: a whole lot more death, violence, and grief that could be avoided were you to take away the guns.  Idiots do a lot less damage with only a knife - and its impossible to get rid of the idiots.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Review of Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick

Science fiction yet to settle on the name of post-cyberpunk fiction (at least as far as I know), I have heard it called both the Singularity Age and the Accelerated Age.  While I am inclined to call it the Anything Goes Age (like post-60s jazz), it nevertheless is possible to point to a larger than average number of post/trans-human texts in the 90s and early 21st century.  The tech boom of the 90s bolstering the belief that scientific developments would take humankind to uncharted territory, likewise came a boom in texts sporting humanity at complete odds with its animal origins, technology the link to something beyond explicable only in fantastical terms.  One of the earliest novels fully identifiable with this movement is Michael Swanwick’s surreally obtuse, colorfully mythopoeic, and fantastically science fictional Stations of the Tide (1991).

Written in Swanwick’s lexically dynamic hand, Stations of the Tide is the story of an unnamed Bureaucrat and the urgent investigation he’s tasked with.  The planet he lives on, Miranda, is subject to major tidal flooding every 200 years, and with the tide due to arrive in a week’s time on what’s called Jubilee Day, it’s imperative that he locate and apprehend the man Gregorian to avert disaster beforehand.  The populace under tight control, the government believes Gregorian has come into possession of proscribed technology—technology capable of hampering humanity’s efforts at achieving higher ground for the flood.  With the clock ticking, the Bureaucrat heads out to find his man, three-legged helper briefcase beside him (yes, three legged helper briefcase).  Trouble is, in such a technically saturated world it’s troublesome telling reality from virtual reality, hallucination from fact, and ultimately, truth from lies.  Where will he be when the tide bells ring?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review of In the Distance, and Ahead in Time by George Zebrowski

Unusual for a non-retrospective or non-best-of collection, the ten stories contained within George Zebrowski’s In the Distance, and Ahead in Time (2002, re-released by Open Road Media in 2015) appeared over a twenty-five year period.  Opening with the first he ever published, the moody “The Water Sculptor,” and closing with one of the last stories he published prior to the assemblage of the collection, “Between the Winds,” it is in some ways, however, a style retrospective. Covering a variety of the author’s themes and motifs and revisiting the settings of some of his novels, it serves as a reminder, overview, or introduction to Zebrowski.

The collection is divided into three sections: Near Futures, The Middle Distance, and Far Futures.  And the stories begin brief, almost vignettes hinting at larger concepts, and move to novelette length, digging ever deeper into character, setting, and the ideas inherent.  Colonization, post-humanism, aliens, mobile worlds, post-apocalypse—a number of typical sf tropes permeate the stories, some with more than one.  Similar to Brian Aldiss, however, they always possess Zebrowski’s controlled, probing voice, attempting to go further into the artifice to get at the human implications beneath.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Review of The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson

At some point in time it’s natural for a person, most likely during adolescence, to look around at their family and ask: “How’d I get mixed up with this bunch?” Genetics not automatically leading to harmonious relationships, there is indeed something deeper in humanity that allows people to get along with some better than others, regardless of blood.  Creating a new social order, Robert Charles Wilson’s simple but effective The Affinities (2015) works with this seeming paradox, ideas ricocheting around the mind, throughout.

Redefining the term ‘family,’ The Affinities works from the premise that a new social algorithm allows a good chunk of humanity to be categorized into affinities—not groups of similar personality, rather diverse, poly-compatible groups that have a good chance at “successful social engagements.  Wilson’s sociologist in the novel locating “the boundary between consciousness and culture,” holistic collaboration becomes the key.  Twenty-two different affinities are identified, of which 60% of the population fits comfortably within one or another.  Entrance is determined by the person’s ability to suit an underlying formula for group holism, new social divisions develop and grow across North America as people come to appreciate the affinities ability to give them a true sense of family, and all the incumbent advantages.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Review of Hunter's Run by Daniel Abraham, Gardner Dozois & George R.R. Martin

Seeing the names of three prominent genre figures on the cover of Hunter’s Run is certain to prompt a reaction: Gardner Dozois, though a writer, is predominantly known as an editor of science fiction shorts; Daniel Abraham has written one original fantasy series and has a second (less original) underway, and George R. R. Martin (need I introduce him) is author of the best-selling fantasy series on the market.  Coming upon the cover, it would be easy for the young genre reader to think what lies beneath is a book of triple the quality. The more experienced, however, may be curious how such a veteran group might work together with a single premise—a science fictional premise, at that.  The answer: the novel is both typical and atypical of the genre, and depending on approach vector (aka expectation) along those two lines, will be considered worth the while or not.

In a fashion similar to Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Hunter’s Run opens with a man, Ramon Espejo, discovering a strange alien object in the remote mountains of the planet Sao Paolo, only to find himself floating in a tank of fluid, disconnected from the world.  His lizard-like captors revealing themselves, he is given the classic choice: death, or helping track down the policeman who had been following Ramon, learned of the alien’s existence, and is now fleeing back to civilization to inform everyone that mankind is not alone on the planet.  Ramon siding with logic—and certainly no friend of the government, he’s put on a leash by an alien calling itself Maneck, and together the two head off in pursuit.  It doesn’t take long, however, before bits of knowledge are revealed that force Ramon wonder whether it is a policeman, or in fact rather something more familiar that the two hunt.

Review of Knights of Dark Renown by David Gemmell

For many, J.R.R. Tolkien is the father of epic fantasy.  With the past decade’s explosion of titles in the sub-genre, however, I get the impression he has been relegated to godfather (or grandfather, depending on the reader’s age) as newer writers—George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Brian Ruckley, and R. Scott Bakker among them—produce titles grittier and less mythic.  But there was a segue between these two points in epic fantasy.  Balancing nobility and heroism with realism and violence, David Gemmell was part of the transition—perhaps the main thrust, and his 1989 Knights of Dark Renown is an obvious mix of it all.  In other words, its quality will probably depend on how much the reader believes fantasy = epic fantasy.

Working within the realms (ha!) of Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars (more in a moment), and classic elements of Arthurian legend, Gemmell produces a milieu of knights and duels, fantastical beasts and ultimate evil, comings of age and quests for honor in a standard Medieval land of hamlets and dukes, horses and forests, kings and castles, magic and other dimensions.  The narrative divided along character lines, but most often groups of characters, the main storyline is: in the not so distant past the king’s seer instructed the his nine white knights to enter the gates of hell. All but one of the legendary Knights of the Gabala who guard the land against evil with their wisdom and lightsab—ahem, swords (that Star Wars thing)—enter the gates.  The knight Mananam remains behind, while the rest are never heard from again. Mananam failing for reasons of cowardice, he lives to watch the kingdom devolve before his eyes. Where human suffering and fear of captivity were once marginal, they take hold of the populace.  Eight red knights coming to occupy the vacancy beside the throne, the king has embarked on a program of genocide, naysayers dealt with by abrupt injustice from his new knights.  Stragglers on the outskirts of the city, a boy with untested magical powers (you knew it was coming), a young lady wicked with a bow, a one-armed knight, a dissident escapee, an outlaw, and an exiled wizard (you also knew it was coming) must band together to find the lost knights and return justice and honor to the kingdom. (Classic line, no? :)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Review of "Journals of the Plague Years" by Norman Spinrad

Deft prose, in-your-face ideas, cut to the punch mentality—Norman Spinrad is one of the more contentious voices in the field, if not one of the most welcome for it.  The poet Alicia Ostriker calling all good art a dance with the devil, Spinrad knows how to tango, challenging the reader with the forthrightness of his conceptions.  Exemplifying these attributes to a socially relevant T is his 1988 novella “Journals of the Plague Years”.  Tackling HIV/AIDS concerns arising at the time, the story cuts to the bone of social, political, and commercial involvement with the disease. 

“Journals” and “Years” plural (as opposed to the singularity of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year), the novella is divided between four perspectives: a soldier, a researcher, a senator, and a teenage girl.  Not rotated strictly on waltz rhythm, Spinrad leapfrogs amongst them in developing the overarching story.  HIV exploding in the US population through rampant sexual activity, massive quarantine zones and health cards are implemented by the paranoid Christian senator Walter T. Bigelow in an attempt to keep the virus under control.  His program an initial success, the spread of the disease falters, giving Richard Bruno a chance, deep in his laboratory, to effect a cure.  A cure he does find, but soon enough the virus mutates, and he’s back at square one.  The disease continuing to creep through the population, Linda Lewin learns, at the tender young age of sixteen, that she’s Got It.  Her parents aghast, she runs away to find a new life in the San Francisco quarantine zone and there do what she can before her time is over. But all hell breaks loose when the concerns of Bruno’s laboratory and the interests of the population at large come to loggerheads.  Infected soldier John Davis conscripted in his dying days to perform one last mission, the fate of HIV in the US hangs in the balance.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Non-Fiction: Review of The Expat: Mission Iraq by Marcel Al Madanat

Western media the social butterfly that it is, once action in Iraq deflated from large-scale military offensive to scattered bombings and shootings, it fluttered elsewhere in search of human drama.  A blank space left in Western awareness of the embattled country, had Iraq been completely destroyed?  Were the people reduced to nothing—poverty, starvation, homelessness?  Does the US military continue to dominate the streets?  What is true public perception of the fall of Saddam Hussein and the introduction of a Western-friendly (most would say puppet) government?  A lot of questions remain.

Lured by the offer yet wary of the inherent risk (kidnapping insurance was involved), in 2012 Marcel Al Madanat moved to Baghdad for a two-year contract supporting a mobile phone provider.  His time there both a life motivating and changing experience, in 2015 he decided to write a book, The Expat: Mission Iraq. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Review of Unfinished Tales by J.R.R. Tolkien

What do the following works have in common: M. John Harrison’s Viriconium Nights, Ursula Le Guin’s Tales from Earthsea, Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Martians, Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor Chronicles, and George Alec Effinger’s Budayeen Nights? They are not only all collections, they are also collections featuring stories set in an established world, binding the larger pieces together like cement. (In the case of Harrison’s Viriconium, we must make that plural: worlds).  Poring over the wealth of material available for the posthumous publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (1977), Tolkien’s son, Christopher, tabbed, compared, analyzed, and made extensive notes of it all, and three years later published Unfinished Tales (1980).  Like the aforementioned author’s collections, it fills in holes, covers backstory, and all around creates a broader, rounder view of a world, in this case the inimitable (though often attempted) Middle Earth. Therefore, those looking for The Lord of the Rings 2: Sauron Strikes Back should be aware: Unfinished Tales is most similar to the mythic stylings of The Silmarillion and the informational appendices of The Lord of the Rings than the novel itself. 
Unfinished Tales is for the scholar, the connoisseur, the nerd of Middle Earth.  Frodo, Gandalf, Sam, Bilbo, Gimli, Aragorn—all get brief mention, but are far, far from being the cornerstones of the collection.  Unfinished Tales can thus be broken into three essential parts: 1) the tales and myths, legends and stories Tolkien had written in the background of the major works that are confluent with Middle Earth history yet insular.  For readers simply interested in reading more from Tolkien’s imagination, they will satisfy. 2) bits of history, including geographical descriptions, royal lineages, histories of friendships and marriages, maps, etc.  These are for the reader who revels in worldbuilding.  And 3) the foot notes.  Covering a tremendous range of side commentary, Tolkien includes his father’s scribblings in the margin, alternate versions of the stories at hand, cross-indexing, analysis, supposition, as well as explanations and descriptions how or why the information is important to the larger scheme of Middle Earth.  Though dad’s writings occupy the majority, the foot notes occupy a significant portion of the book.  (There are even a couple of occasions wherein the foot notes are longer than the story itself.)  These additional notes, analysis, and commentary are for the reader with “Frodo lives!” tattooed on their forehead.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Review of The Physiognomy by Jeffrey Ford

Looking back through history, some of mankind’s most intriguing pseudosciences are those that draw connections between appearance and value.  Judging the human book by its cover, phrenology and physiognomy purport to be able to measure morals through the dimensions and attributes of body.  Somehow maintaining plausibility for centuries, it wasn’t truly until the turn of the 20th that the practices were quelled from the public eye.  But what a tool of power it would have been.  A malleable concept if ever there were, a king or high-minded official might condemn a person based solely on the dimensions of a nose—even if their own physical characteristics fit that of a murderer or rapist.  Taking the idea and putting it to use in fiction, Jeffrey Ford’s 1997 The Physiognomy (re-released by Open Road Media in 2015) is the redemption of one such high-minded official.  His story defining the word ‘malleable,’ it’s about as swimmingly macabre as dark fantasy gets.

Cley is a physiognomist living in the Well-Built City.  A despicable, bilious, narcissistic criminal of an official, he is the right-hand man of the city’s even more despicable ruler, the sorcerous Drachton Below.  Falling out of favor at the outset, however, Cley is sent on a punitive assignment to a small mining town in the distant, dirty reaches of the realm to weed out the thief of a strange white fruit.  With miners petrifying in the blue dust they collect each day, demons in the nearby forest, a beautiful young woman with greater physiognomy talent than he, and a strange thing calling itself the Traveler haunting his dreams (or his reality), Cley’s time in the town of Anamasobia spins his already bizarre world to the surreal. Catching the thief is only a doorway to stranger things.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Review of The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Ken Liu’s first published story appeared in 2002, and over the next eight years only five additional stories appeared.  A fire lit beneath him after, however, since 2010 Liu has been a machine.  An astonishing eighty pieces of fiction published in the five intervening years, the only thing more amazing is that none of these works was a novel.  But finally in 2015 Liu has emerged in long form.  A major switch in terms of style, The Grace of Kings, book one in the Dandelion Dynasty series (trilogy?), is perhaps the least and most expected story that could have emerged.

A sense of humanism grounding the storm of short fiction Liu has produced to date, The Grace of Kings is likewise rooted in history, society, culture, and the interaction among them.  Looking at cycles of power, the effects of war on a large, multi-ethnic archipelago, and the choices the people at the top face as time moves forever forward, the novel is, however, a significantly more in depth examination of these ideas than anything Liu has produced to date—a 650 page examination, in fact.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Review of Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land is one of genre’s more divisive offerings.  Loved or hated, it tells of an alien arriving with a message of universal love and the religious, political, and social reaction as a commune of belief is created around it.  Heinlein painting the scene in black and white, his ideas are presented via contemptuous satire, rendering the novel largely a soapbox—the reason behind said reader discord.

Enter Nnedi Okorafor’s 2014 Lagoon.  About aliens who arrive in Nigeria bearing a message of love, likewise all manner of chaos is unleashed as they spread knowledge of their mission.  Lagoon is significantly different from Heinlein in tone and attitude, however.  Rather than bludgeoning the reader with jaded cynicism, Okorafor presents the social and political issues Nigeria is dealing with in candid fashion while integrating the alien viewpoint, arriving at something greener, something more holistic than just the disparaging dichotomy of Heinlein.  Her commentary may sometimes be (indirectly) cutting, but Lagoon remains a warm, parental novel—the strong hand of love—that is more constructive than destructive.  Not just Heinlein’s stick, Okorafor also offers the carrot. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Review of Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

The European Union very well may be the most interesting social experiment ever attempted by mankind.  Taking almost a billion people with differing culture, language and belief, not to mention centuries of unending feuds and wars, and unifying them under a single government is an act unprecedented in world history.  In many Europeans’ eyes, however, it’s just that: an experiment, nothing certain about future coherence.  A thought experiment which sees “Europe calving into icebergs”, Dave Hutchinson’s 2014 novel Europe in Autumn (2014) locates an atypical espionage thriller on the continent post-EU.

From Scottish independence to Silesia’s secession from Poland, Europe in Autumn is set in a Europe recognizable culturally yet fragmented politically.  Rudi is an Estonian chef working in Cracow, who finds himself faced with an interesting and profitable proposition after his restaurant absorbs an evening’s destruction from a group of drunk Hungarian mafia.  His Estonian passport giving him access to polities in Europe where Poles are not allowed, he completes a simple mission into Germany and returns safe and sound.  That step his first into the world of cross-border information trafficking, it isn’t long before the information begins tracking him too, fully exposing just how intricate and complex the relationship between government and the individual truly is across the freshly shattered European continent.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Review of The Last Coin by James P. Blaylock

(Cue eager 1950s’ advertizing voice.)  Looking for something new?  Tired of that steady diet of popular fantasy with the same dichotomies, the same sense of style, the same touch points?  Need something fresh, something outside the mainstream of genre?  A plot that goes none knows where?  Characters so obtuse they’re normal?  Imagination of the most esoteric?  If this is you my friend, then look no further than the incomparable Mr. James P. Blaylock!  Fabulist extraordinaire, he mixes a drop of the supernatural into the mundane affairs of Joe Average to create a concoction most quirky—and pleasing for it!  Run, run, run to your corner bookshop and pick a book today!

After such a review introduction, I should pause to note the above tone is all in good fun, but the message is real; Blaylock is the scribe for the reader looking for something outside the fantasy norm.  His oeuvre unique across the spectrum of speculative fiction, one may choose almost anywhere (save the middle of series, or course) and walk away satisfied.  Take for example his delightful 1988 The Last Coin—as consistent, individual, and delightful as the day it was published.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Review of The Investigation by Stanislaw Lem

Sherlock Holmes may very well be the world’s most famous detective (Watson would definitely hit the top ten for sidekicks).  King of logic and master of sly, where others see only flying pigs and water flowing uphill, the British recluse of Baker Street peers through the slush of misinformation to the jagged line connecting the dots of reality. This latter word significant, the underlying premise to all of Holmes’ cases is that a solution exists—an explanation that satisfies all the questions and parameters of the case in our real world, nothing fantastical about it.  Arthur Conan Doyle a brilliant writer, his creations, however, were fiction; in real life not all cases go solved and not all mysteries that life presents are unraveled.

A Scotland Yard case the perfect premise, in 1959 Stanislaw Lem penned The Investigation as a means of digging at the reasons behind this juxtaposition between fiction and reality.  A bodysnatching mystery of the most metaphysical, Lem racks up a high score for being a prime student of literature, from detective noir to Dostoevsky, and being incredibly insightful into the uncertainties of perception that dance and drum, hide and manifest themselves in the human brain as it encounters this little thing we call life.