Saturday, October 31, 2015

Review of The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration is one of alternate history’s most notable texts.  As with many British books, its concerns are largely centered on Old Albion, particularly what the Isles would have been like were the Reformation never to have occurred. A wonderfully-imagined possible intersection of religion, politics, and culture, one can’t help but wonder the degree of its influence on Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 alternate history The Years of Rice and Salt.  A book that likewise pivots religious concerns on a single point in history, Robinson removes Christianity and Judaism from the scene to focus on the two major religions that remain, Islam and Buddhism.  Published in the wake of 9-11, Robinson forgoes finger-pointing to build something of his re-aligned, Asiatic world.

The first two major iterations of monotheism eliminated, The Years of Rice and Salt posits a Jonbar point wherein Black Death wipes out 99% of Christendom and Judaism in Europe.  In essence laying out the red carpet for Islam to expand westwards and China eastwards, Robinson revisions the world to be dominated by these two major powers.  Not wholly a dichotomy, Hindustani India retains a toehold, and without invading Europeans, so too does the Native American population.  (Given extra years without European invasion to disrupt the relative cultural and technological homogeneity, Robinson envisions the tribes forming a loose but stable coalition that evolves to a point it becomes a global player politically and commercially—an interesting aspect, indeed.) 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review of "The Builders" by Daniel Polansky

There is no doubt we are living in a second Golden Age of speculative fiction.  The number of titles produced so high and spread across such a variety of sub-genres, in fact, it’s impossible for anyone to read all that comes available in science fiction and fantasy each month, let alone year.  Quantity not often equaling quality, the bulk of new material is, unfortunately, superfluous.  Where the majority of pulp from the 30s and 40s was lost to time, e-pulp of the current Golden Age is thus likely to go the same direction.

This is a long way of saying Daniel Polansky’s 2015 “The Builders” (Tor) is e-pulp.  It has color and punch, but so quickly dissolves into nothing.  Polanksy himself calling the novella a “one-note joke” derived from “adolescent sensibilities,” his story of gun-slinging animals who get revenge on a depraved city leader is as lite as speculative fiction gets. 

Kung Fu Panda meets Mean Streets, “The Builders” features Bonsoir the wisecracking French stoat, Boudica the doe-eyed sniper possum, Cinnabar the quick-draw salamander, Barley the heavy-gunner badger, Gertrude mole, and Elf the lame owl who team up under the cool, calm guidance of the Captain (a disfigured mouse) to get their final revenge on evil Mephetic skunk.  Bullets flying fast and furious against hordes of rats and lackeys, the Garden will never be the same.

Review of The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker

Take the philosophical concept of the original Dune trilogy, sprinkle in some basic plot devices from The Lord of the Rings, and mix with a coherent system of magic, a handful of strong lead characters shaded in gray, wholly original races, cultures, and settings, and voila, you will have R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series in a nutshell.  A lucid concoction, the trilogy holds no punches, leaving the reader wide-eyed for its brutal adherence to the realities of pre-industrial life and probing of the darker crevasses of the human psyche.  No fuzzy hobbits picking flowers and discussing what variety of pipe tobacco they prefer, instead, Machiavellian scheming, deep-seated fear, ever-inflating egos, and pushes, risks, and clashes to obtain power are unveiled as ugly truths in humanity.  Underrated, the Prince of Nothing is one of the best epic fantasy series available today, The Darkness that Comes Before (2003) its first volume. 

The Darkness that Comes Before is a strong trilogy opener. Patiently revealing bits and pieces of Earwa, giving the reader strong, distinct characters to wrestle with, creating tension from the social and political setup, developing a layer of intellectual depth to the underlying motivations of the story, and most importantly, giving purpose to the overarching narrative, there are few opening volumes in epic fantasy as successful.  A critique of human fear and ego the series’ roots, Bakker’s narrative is appropriately character and dialogue based, but should not be mistaken as a hero’s journey.  It’s dark. In fact, the novel holds much more in common with Peter Watts’ hardline views toward the human psyche in Blindsight than Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings silven elves and magisterial forests and mountains.  Another way of saying this is, it’s epic fantasy minus the good guys. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Review of The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder

Pouncing on the steampunk zeitgeist, Mark Hodder’s 2010 The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack takes the clockwork aesthetic and runs with it—as fast and hard as it can.  Victorian England, steam horses, top hats and walking sticks, brass hovercrafts, Richard Burton (a la a Sherlock Holmes), the paranormal, biological tinkering, cursing parrots, and a mystery involving a spring-loaded, blue fire-breathing man on the foggy streets of London—it may be as overtly steampunk as steampunk gets.

A clear mix of Tim Power’s The Anubis Gates and James Blaylock’s Langdon St. Ives books with a lingering essence of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Hodder places Richard Burton, the famous African explorer, front and center in an alternate history adventure of late 19th century British proportion.  With secret societies, late night escapades, eugenics, Dickensian street urchins, spontaneously exploding werewolves, roto chairs, and time travel conundrums peppering the mix, the devices and tropes leave no doubt as to its predecessors. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Review of "Hawksbill Station" by Robert Silverberg

Note: this review is for the novella “Hawksbill Station” not the novel expansion.  If you are interested in the novel, I recommend Joachim Boaz’s review, here.

Soviet forced labor camps, located in the remotest depths of Siberia, define the word ‘exile’.  As the titles (let alone content) of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Gustav Herling’s A World Apart imply, life in the work camps was more than one degree separate from civilization.  Not just murderers and thieves worked to the death in extreme conditions, the camps were likewise home to political dissidents and subversives, which in conjunction with the remote isolation, created a unqiue environment consisting of a much wider variety of personalities than the average penitentiary in the West.  Far from Siberia (quite literally) yet similar in demographic, Robert Silverberg’s superb 1967 novella “Hawksbill Station” takes a look at one such prison camp.

Time travel the main plot device (though thankfully not one whose technicalities are delved into in the least), a totalitarianist government uses a time machine to ship its convicts millions of years into Earth’s past into the Cambrian era.  A one way trip, the men (and it’s only men) are provided the basics of life—shelter, rudimentary technology, etc.—and are left to fend for themselves, no hope of returning to the present day.  Mostly radical intellectuals and political subversives, they resist the urge to resort to primitivism, maintaining as relatively a civilized society as their meager means allow.  Battling inner demons, Jim Barrett is the informal leader of the misfit group that has slowly assembled over the years. With his embracing view, his social glue is a big part of why their time-lost colony still functions.  But with the arrival of a new prisoner, a young man calling himself Law Hahn, the relative stability of Hawksbill Station threatens to crumble.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Review of West of Eden by Harry Harrison

(For a better genre view of West of Eden, see MPorcius’ quality take here.)

Extreme alternate history, West of Eden (1984) is a version of Earth wherein the dinosaurs never went extinct and evolved in parallel to humanity. I normally do not point to wikipedia, but in the case of this novel it does a great job summarizing the setting and how it’s different from what we know. 

Featuring sentient dinosaurs (called yilane) evolved to a bio/steampunk-ish level of technology, they are set against a version of humanity not yet graduated from the stone age.  Having evolved on separate continents, the opening of West of Eden features the first meeting of the two species.  Not going well to say the least, a cycle of violence takes hold in the aftermath that threatens to make one side or the other extinct.  Caught in the middle is Kerrick.  A child at the outset, his hunting party is slaughtered by the yilane and he is taken captive.  Treated like a dog, he nevertheless learns their language and becomes a part of their society as he grows up.  But he never fully accepts his situation. Harboring dreams of escape and vengeance, Kerrick gets what he wants, but whether or not he’s satisfied is another question.

Superficially genre, the imaginings of West of Eden will either turn the reader on or off.  Sentient dinosaur anthropoids the litmus test, if the idea causes no eyelashes to bat, the text can be appreciated, as below the surface Harrison has imbued his alternate history Earth with many pervasive and interesting ideas.  From primitive survival to xenophobia, the effects of technology on a species and inter-species relations to paganism, discrimination, and imperialism, it’s clear Harrison is telling a story more concerned with the interplay of ideas than the wars and battles and other trappings of mainstream science fiction that are so easily, and often appealingly available to the eye. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review of Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

Haley’s Comet-esque, there are not many chances I have to praise a science fiction book cover, so presented with the opportunity, I’m going to pounce.  The cover of Jonathan Lethem’s 1994 Gun, with Occasional Music is not only a nice piece of retro art, it represents the novel at all levels.  (Feels strange writing those words...) The surface is classic: the character expressions, the clothing, the mood, the usage of lighting—it could grace the cover of a 1930s detective magazine and none would be the wiser.  Except—except there’s that kangaroo, in a suit.  Incongruous it may seem, yet indicative it remains.

Raymond Chandler inviting Michael Swanwick and Philip K. Dick to his house for drinks (or perhaps something a little harder, a little more psychedelic), Gun, with Occasional Music is classic detective noir with a futuristic, surreal spin.  While Lethem puts the majority of his effort (successfully) into getting the right tone, the right structure, and the right character dynamics to match the revered crime writer’s style, there remain enough evolved animals, synthetic drugs, and other social and media oddities for the kangaroo to be fully deserving of its place on the cover.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Review of Steampunk ed. by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

There are the novels that everyone thinks of when the word ‘cyberpunk’ is mentioned: Neuromancer, Mindplayers, Hardwired, and others.  But it may be Bruce Sterling’s anthology Mirrorshades which best defines the sub-genre.  Capturing the spectrum of the movement in artistic terms, the anthology covers aesthetics to ideology.  Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s 2008 anthology Steampunk does precisely the same with the eponymous sub-genre.  Likewise featuring a representative range of stories with superb introductory and essay material, it captures the next -punk in all its major forms, in essence defining it.

Canvassing the field, the VanderMeers came up with fourteen stories—or at least excerpts from fourteen stories—in Steampunk.  Like Mirrorshades, most are recognizable to the sub-genre while a few are intended along ideological lines.  Airships, steam horses, pulp nostalgia, alternate history, Victoriana, clockwork apparati, plebian struggles, anachronistic machines, social revolutions—all are represented in some form or another, most more than once.  The authors well to lesser known, there is not one story, however, poorly written.  Certainly every reader will have their own opinion about what is and isn’t steampunk, but the supplementary material—essays from Jess Nevins and Bill Baker as well as story introductions (from the VanderMeers, assumedly)—go a long way toward establishing a steampunk context that includes all the material selected, and in the very least erects a scaffolding for what the sub-genre might be.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Review of Market Forces by Richard Morgan

Science fiction writer sitting, brainstorming story ideas…

Hmmm… business is competition, right?  And for the moment that competition is generally peaceful, regulated by government institutions businesses dislike but accept.  But what if business were above the law—played by its own rules—and were allowed to openly invest in the weapons and wars that support their profit lines?  Wouldn’t this turn business into war and vice versa—a negotiation with violence instead of diplomacy?  And what if, just what if, the position of CEO, winning of contracts, major decisions, etc. were decided by car duels?  And what if—wait a minute!  Car duels?

It’s at this point the writer faces Shakespeare: to include or not to include car duels.  Richard Morgan, in his 2004 Market Forces, decided ‘Yes, I want car duels to back my corporate wars, and not only will there be car duels, there will be violent and melodramatic car duels.’  It’s therefore a good thing he also decided to take the next necessary step and make the novel satire.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review of The Rose by Charles L. Harness

The 1950s in the US was a time when science fiction and fantasy were emerging from their cocoons to spread wings and take purposeful flight.  Though they have never fully escaped this legacy, the decade at least started to put some distance between itself and ray gun wielding heroes, slavering aliens, and damsels in distress by looking at how larger issues might be addressed by genre.  Charles L. Harness’ collection The Rose, anchored by the eponymous novella, is a bold step toward adulthood.

Working with the foundation of Oscar Wilde’s short “The Nightingale and the Rose”, “The Rose” is the story of Anna van Tuyl.  Ballet dancer, psychologist, composer, as well as recent grower of strange bodily protuberances, she seeks help completing her most recent symphony and runs into Ruy Jacques, a man who shares her problems corporeal.  Jacques’ scientist wife is dragged into the mix, and with her come the 19 equations she is working on in order to design the world’s perfect weapon.  Their triangle eventually coming to a line, Harness falls back upon a dramatic/comedic conclusion that satisfies all sides of the art vs. science debate.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Review of After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh

Apocalypse has become one of the primary motifs of science fiction.  Starting as early as H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds’ alien invasion, it moves through the psychological examinations of humanity involved in environmental catastrophe by J.G. Ballard in the 60s and 70s.  It is in the 21st century, however, that one sees the motif really take hold.  Post-ap texts a sub-genre of their own these days, the stories the past decade utilizing end of the world scenarios are many, many.  It’s precisely in this context Maureen McHugh’s 2011 collection After the Apocalypse becomes (ironically) so unique. 

Hinted at in the title (the eschewing of the standard term ‘post-apocalypse’ to relate the same idea with different words), After the Apocalypse is what Paul Kincaid mildly calls in his review “different ways of looking at how our future has failed us.”  The stories so personal as to almost defy the social implications of the term ‘apocalypse,’ McHugh focuses all of her attention on the human aspect of disaster, nearly, but not quite, rendering the term immaterial.  Containing nine stories, two of which are original to the collection, McHugh’s unvaryingly understated usages of disaster are far more relevant to emotion and human interest than the overwhelming majority of post-ap fiction, i.e. that trying to capitalize on the zeitgeist or pure sensationalism.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Review of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.

Indulge me for a moment—just a moment.

Jane Tiptree Jr.’s 1990 His Smoke Rose Up Forever is a quality collection of short stories spanning the writer’s career. Almost but not quite a best-of, its major themes are brazen and challenging, including: alien juxtaposition, dominance in cultural relations, gender dichotomy, mortality, and the female proclivity for physical and sexual violence toward men.  The language on point throughout, nihilism regarding humanity’s overall chances of survival as a result of female misanthropy has never been so rigorously portrayed in fiction.

Now stop.  Did you blink at anytime reading that paragraph?  Yes, I confess.  I switched the gender indicators.  Reverse all the male, female, etc. and voila, you’ve got a true summary of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.  Feel better now, don’t you?  It’s ok for men to be the cause of humanity’s downfall and to have their evil deeds magnified in heavily politicized terms, but not ok for women.  Thus, in terms of the collection’s location in gender discussion, it makes for... interesting discussion.

Though there are some outliers (which I will get to), the lion’s share of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is bound up in men committing violence toward women, of male fantasies that end in rape or murder, and of masculinity that plays itself into the downfall of humanity.  “The Last Flight of Dr. Ain,” for example, features an epidemiologist (a man) who travels the world giving lectures, spreading a virus along the way. His reason: fantasies of a woman appearing in his dreams.  “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” is the story of a woman trodding a post-apocalyptic landscape and is raped along the way.  As she lays dying, she dreams of a woman who is… raped.  “With Delicate Mad Hands” is the story of a young woman who is assigned to a space ship, and after some time aboard, is gang raped by her shipmates and captain before a more tragic fate takes hold.  And in perhaps Tiptree Jr.’s most famous story, “The Screwfly Solution,” an entomologist researches eliminating a particularly pesky insect by creating a pesticide that wipes out its females.  In his life outside the lab, the entomologist has fantasies of murdering his wife while a strange cult, the Cult of Adam, sweeps the land, killing all women.  

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Review of The Free by Brian Ruckley

Brian Ruckley’s debut The Godless World trilogy got its foot in the grimdark door a few years before the idea really took hold in epic fantasy.  Something of a misfortune for Ruckley, his trilogy remains one of the better in the sub-genre, but under-read due to the later success of George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Luke Scull, Jeff Salyards, Brian Staveley, and others.  Possessing a strong Scottish-ish (or at least Medieval loch and highlands) feel, Ruckley proved able to do something beyond plot and set scenes: endow story and character with something resembling real emotion—not something typically on the grimdark checklist.  Moreover, his gritty style is more natural, more organic.  Unlike the manipulations of Abercrombie or the contrived cheese of Scull or Salyards, the fates of Ruckley’s characters unravel inherent to plot rather than being insular events intended solely to shock or surprise.  Smaller in scope and the emotional edge perhaps blunted slightly, Ruckley’s 2014 The Free marks a return to grimdark.

A stand-alone novel (very welcome in this day of never-ending series), The Free is the story of a band of mercenaries fulfilling one last contract and the young man who joins them as contract bearer.  That contract the capture of a man who committed the most grievous of injustices against a small village, the leader of the Free, Yulan, has personal interest bringing the man down, and thus he and his motley group of clevers and battle-hardened fighters go about the commission with teeth set.  But when a nearby school of magic undergoes internal upheaval, a rogue sorcerer throws a wrench in the Free’s plans.  For Drann, the contract bearer, life goes from chaotic to outright frightful as everything collides in a powerful climax that shakes and trembles the story to its very foundations.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Non-Fiction: Review of Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer

I recall in high school an English teacher admonishing we students to invest in Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.   I ignored her, of course, but years later, when doing more writing than I ever intended as a teenager, picked up a copy at a table sale, somewhere, for a quarter.  Thinking to have a laugh, I opened it that night to see what my teacher had been on about.  Soon enough, I was caught—“Yes, that’s it!” and “They’re completely right!” the statements coming to my brain time and again reflecting on the problems with my own writing.  Having just finished Jeff VanderMeer’s 2013 Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, I can’t help but imagine that if my high school teacher had recommended it, my history would have been different. 

There are writing guides and there are writing guides.  Some are for a specific purpose, e.g. Scott Meredith’s poison—ahem, prescription for mainstream fiction Writing to Sell, and some are to shore up specific issues a writer may have, such as David Madden’s Revising Fiction.  Threading the tight gap between horn-rimmed glasses strictness and loose practicality, Wonderbook is, as VanderMeer writes in his intro, a “general guide to the art and craft of fiction first and foremost, but it is also meant to be a kind of cabinet of curiosities that stimulates your imagination.  Packed to the gills with gorgeous illustrations, diagrams, and art (the striking cover is literally only the beginning) as well as input from a wide range of authors, it aims to be advisory, illustrative, engaging, insightful, and above all, informative.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Review of Deja Vu by Ian Hocking

One of the main characters in William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive is the titular Mona. A drug-addicted prostitute wandering the Sprawl, she accepts an offer too good to be true, and loses her identity in the process: the surgeries she undergoes confuse any sense of self not already rattled by narcotics.  Gibson’s novel classic cyberpunk, the gritty noir of near-future permeates her story.  Revisioning Mona, Ian Hocking’s re-released Deja Vu (2014, Unsung Stories) tells a fast-paced cyberthriller about a young woman with a similar identity crisis. His Mona, however, is agent of her own future.

Saskia Brandt is Hocking’s Mona, and at the outset of Deja Vu is pressganged into a job she would rather not do but is forced to take due to past decisions: she is to track down a murderer.  Whisked away to London, she finds herself paired with the cynical Jago, and together the two begin putting together the pieces of David Proctor’s story.  A brilliant professor caught up in affairs over his head that result in the death of a colleague, Brandt tracks Proctor at her own peril, and in the process learns which past decisions haunt her today—and tomorrow.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review of Kindred by Octavia Butler

I’ve bought Octavia Butler’s 1979 Kindred, I’ve read it, I’ve greatly enjoyed it, but I don’t know if I’m in a position to review it.  A middle-aged white American male, I can talk until I’m blue in the face about the importance of the novel regarding black history in my country, but in the end, the most important thing is that the reader switch windows to their favorite book seller’s site and purchase the book to fully experience the text.  Rich to the point of bursting with socio-cultural importance, the novel ranks alongside the works of Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and other writers who have been key to giving the African American voice in fiction.  Tackling slavery, its legacy, and contemporary race relations head on, Kindred gives pause in a multitude of ways.

Like the best works of speculative fiction, Kindred uses genre tropes as a springboard to something grander.  Though technically a time travel story, Butler never goes into the details of shifting characters back and forth in time.  Dana Franklin, a contemporary American black woman, and her husband Kevin, a white man, are taken through bizarre temporal shifts to the American south circa 1815—the heart of of nearly every kind of racial injustice and oppression one can imagine.  The pair finding themselves on the plantation of Dana’s great-grandparents, owned by one Rufus Weylin, they must live through the nightmare of slave life from a 20th century perspective.