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 to 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.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review of Immortality, Inc. by Robert Sheckley

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Robert Sheckley is one of the real Big Three from science fiction’s Silver Age.  Heinlein or Asimov can take a seat, preferably both.  Producing more sophisticated, intelligent content, having a deeper focus on the human condition, and being a better word-by-word, line-by-line writer than Asimov and a more universal humanist than Heinlein, his novels, nevertheless, have gotten the short end of the stick in terms of historical recognition.  This blog’s charter does not include beating a drum for overlooked books and writers, but in exploring classic science fiction I certainly have come across works bearing that second look.  Sheckley’s brilliant debut Immortality, Inc. (1959) is well worth a return visit.

Where Asimov often prostrates himself to the possibilities of science and technology, Sheckley lends a more skeptical eye.  Dynamically satirical, Immortality, Inc. looks at the pitfalls of life-eternal via time travel, all with a witty eye to humanity’s virtues and vices.  Thomas Blaine, rich yacht designer, is driving down the road one day when an accident takes his life.  His last thoughts on mortality, it’s something of a surprise to wake up, alive.  His mind having been illegally transported by the Rex Corporation a century into the future, he wakes comfortably his mental self, only in a stranger’s body.  But it’s out on the streets of 22nd century New York that Blaine discovers just how slight the idea of death has become.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review of "Recovering Apollo 8" by Kristin Kathryn Rusch

There are many who consider astronauts heroes of the modern age.  Where Eric the Red, Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, and a variety of others are idolized for their exploration of wild lands of yesteryear, most people today know the names of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong (Michael Collins gets the short end of that mission’s stick for some reason) as the first on the moon in the mid-20th century.  Attempting (emphasis on ‘attempting’) to put such feats in perspective for contemporary readers, Kristin Kathryn Rusch’s “Recovering Apollo 8” (2007) is alternate history of the space variety.

The novella has a premise that can only be described as strange. Taking one of NASA’s most successful, heralded missions as its Jonbar point, the story flips the success on its head such that it was a failure, and then sets a billionaire genius, one Richard Johansenn, on its heels to recover the lost ship and the men presumed dead inside.  Seeming a setup for a deconstruction of something, Rusch nevertheless plows ahead, telling her own tale of relative heroism. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Would You Like to Read Me?: Snapshot of Book Publicity at the Beginning of the 21st Century

I recently received spam - sorry, a request - to review a debut novel.  The byline read: "A THRILLER SET IN A SCI-FI WORLD FILLED WITH PLOT TWISTS, A FEMALE PROTAGANIST AND SCIENTIFIC ACCURACY."  This was not sent by the author, rather their publicist, and so I don't know who to blame for the tragedy.  Hard to believe this a real example of book publicity...  Has it sunk so low?  (For the record, the plot summary which followed was no less refined or enticing.)

We can forgive the misspelling of 'protagonist.'  We can ignore the oxymoron "sci-fi world.... scientific accuracy."  And we can excuse the insult to intelligence that highlighting "female protaganist" is to would-be readers.  It's the sum total which causes the head to drop in shame.  For all the advances in publishing, for all the familiarity readers have with the system and its attempts to manipulate for gain, for  all the mass of media supporting the book industry, and for all the university courses and online material available how to build your brand, how to market your material, how to properly use social media, blah blah blah, I'm left wondering: that is the "hook" a publicist is throwing my way?  I'm not indignant; I'm sad at the reflection.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Review of Return to Eden by Harry Harrison

With Winter in Eden ending as it did, what the third and final book in the Eden series, Return to Eden (1988), would hold in store was a major question mark.  If something resembling an understanding had been established between the humans and yilane, what could drive the Eden storyline further?  Turns out, a lot.

Kerrick, having bartered a relative peace between the yilane and humans, looks to re-settle with his wife Armun and the rest of the tanu in a new community.  They do so beside a bountiful lake, but not without a moment of intense drama for the two male yilane who travel with them.  Leading to other major events, life is far from settled for the tanu.  Ambalasi, still de facto leader of the Daughters of Life, has her traditional mindset put to the test by Enge and one of the strong-willed Daughters, and in the process their whole community is tested.  And Vainte, exiled to a foreign continent, contemplates her future, and eventually comes to a conclusion—a predictable but effective conclusion.

Where Winter in Eden expanded the settings and characters of West of Eden, so too does Return to Eden.  But what is expanded, or at least concretized most significantly is theme—or rather themes, as there are many floating around Harrison’s extreme alternate history.  From race/species relations to the role of weapons, perennial philosophy to Otherness, linguistics to culture—all arrive at a relative sense of closure given the points causing tension thus far in the series.  The number of times I thought to myself “Wow, that ties back into that, and that…” is a significant indication of the preparation and organization Harrison brought to the series.

Review of Winter in Eden by Harry Harrison

Alternate history to the extreme, Harry Harrison’s West of Eden, first in the Eden trilogy, posited a world wherein not all dinosaurs went extinct.  An evolved bipedal species surviving the Cretaceous and gaining sentience called the yilane, the novel describes their first major interaction with humanity, and the war and violence that ensued.   More than just blood and fighting, it is clear Harrison was paving the way for a larger agenda on species relations, Otherness, war, civilization, and other major ideas surrounding the concpt of a multi-hued society.  In the second of the trilogy, Winter in Eden, those ideas begin to reveal themselves along clearer lines, even as the tension between the yilane and humans ratchets itself back up again.

Exploring new areas of the map, Winter in Eden likewise expands its points of view.  Just a side character in West of Eden, Winter begins to follow Armun, Kerrick’s wife, as she attempts to reunite with her husband.  Kerrick, meanwhile, attempts to extract what knowledge and science he can from the ruins of the yilane city razed at the end of West of Eden.  But a stronger calling eventually draws him away.  Though defeated, Vainte still lives, and in Winter in Eden her quest to destroy the vile ustouzou redoubles.  Employing means to make Hitler smile, she’s learned her lesson and aims for a methodical killing blow.  Likewise surviving the catastrophe is Enge, one of the Daughters of Light.  Her beliefs shunned by most yilane, she strikes out with a small group to create a new society, and discovers some very interesting aspects of the world in the process. 

Friday, April 8, 2016

Review of Down and Out in Purgatory by Tim Powers

Tim Powers is a writer whose development the reader has been able to track with certainty.  A marked maturation is visible from his fledgling, early efforts that won over more for ideas than execution to his latest efforts which feature a writer aware and in control of the craft.  2016 a more productive year than usual for Powers, it has seen the publication of a major novel, Medusa’s Web, and in June the novella Down and Out in Purgatory (Subterranean). 

Tom Holbrook is on a mission of revenge.  The love of his life killed by her husband (a man Holbrook was formerly close with, so close they had tattoos done together), he scours the American West searching, gun at hand.  A hardened man with purpose, when he finds the object of his revenge in a morgue, a wrench is thrown in the works.  But only temporarily.  Other, more rash means possible, revenge is still attainable for Holbrook, just not in this world, it seems.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Another award!!! Yeah!!!!! Wait....

Just what science fiction and fantasy needed: another celebration of mediocrity - sorry, fan-voted best science fiction and fantasy novel!!!  Thanks Dragon Con for dragging the bar a little lower!  (And thank you to whomever I stole the image on the right from: it fits perfectly.)

Review of The Book of the Damned by Tanith Lee

Tanith Lee is quietly one of the great writers of dark fantasy, and though now passed, still deserving of a wider audience.  Walking her own path in a field filled with wannabes, she slowly but steadily built an oeuvre of stories grounded in rich prose, a sensitivity to the workings of the human soul (ill-intentioned, good-hearted, or otherwise), a deep understanding of the power of myth and faery, and a talent for synergizing it all in fascinating stories.  1988’s The Book of the Damned (reprinted by Open Road Media in 2016) is the first in a series of works examining the phantasmagorical depths of the decadent, haunted city Paradys.  It remains one of not only Lee’s, but fantasy’s best works.

Presented as stories from a strange city (the subtitle is The Secret Books of Paradys), The Book of the Damned is ostensibly three novellas: “Stained with Crimson,” “Malice in Saffron,” and “Empires of Azure.”  Like Lee’s earlier Flat Earth books, however, the tales bleed and seep into one another to create a whole, of sorts.  Distinct yet suffuse entities, the characters and stories at each’s core takes one step further toward building in the reader’s mind the city of Paradys.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Review of Homunculus by James P. Blaylock

The best works of a sub-genre are most often those which come to light in hindsight.  Unaware they were/are part of a groundswell, there is no overt implementation of particular tropes or themes in order to be part of a specific literary or cultural movement.  Steampunk stories, for example, while billowing in popularity after 2009-2010, have not since seen as many truly unique works as the decades prior.  The best novels and stories produced before it became a cultural phenomenon, James Blaylock’s Homunculus (1986) is one such novel, and indeed one of the sub-genre’s charming, capering, and unwitting cornerstones.

A strange dirigible circling the rainy gray skies of England, the inventor Langdon St. Ives works oblivious on his space rocket at the outset of Homunculus.  But a late night burglary attempt on a perpetual motion device brings St. Ives closer to the gyres of the dirigible’s haunting significance.  Snagging him and dragging him into the proverbial machine, however, is his possession of the memoirs of Sebastien Owlesby and its account of a magical little man trapped in a box.  With the dirigible’s orbit decaying toward London, it isn’t long before it’s up to St. Ives and his Royal Society fellows to attempt to bring down a scheme that no one seem to have a firm handle on, right down to the very men perpetuating the scheme.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Review of Learning the World by Ken Macleod

After opening his career in science fiction with the original Fall Revolution series, Ken Macleod has since been going through the genre’s major tropes and conceptions to find inspiration.  The Engines of Light trilogy hard sf meets space opera and Newton’s Wake full blown space opera, for his next novel Learning the World (2005) Macleod decided to go the first contact route. 

A dual-perspective novel, the actual contact between humanity and a bat-like alien species comes very late in the novel.  Humanity interestingly the species technically advanced enough to do the contacting, Learning the World oscillates back and forth between characters in a generation starship approaching a new system and the aliens who inhabit one of the planets in the system as the two notice signs of the other before actual contact.  The aliens having a WWII level of technology, first contact technically (ha!) occurs when the aliens notice a new “star” moving through their night sky.  Other strange, unnatural things popping up in their atmosphere and environment, they quickly figure out they are not alone.  Meanwhile on the ship, factions appear once humanity observes likfe on the planet and likewise figures out it is not alone.  The main draw of Learning the World is thus the manner in which each side learns about the other and the relative effect it has on their societies.

Review of Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin

Good ol' clich├ęs.  In fiction they can be A) beaten like a dead horse, B) expanded upon to transcend origin, C) deconstructed for critical value, or D) given enough depth to stand on their own—legs tottering from the years of accumulated weight, but standing nonetheless.  Another way of putting this, B, C, and/or D are needed to avoid A.  George R.R. Martin’s Fevre Dream (1982) goes with tactic D, but it remains up to the reader whether its legs collapse.

The offer seeming too good to be true, at the outset of Fevre Dream Captain Abner Marsh approaches his midnight dinner with the mysterious Joshua York with strong reserve.  Marsh’s fleet of steamboats having recently been destroyed in winter’s ice, he has little of value, and is wary of the massive sum he is offered to captain a steamboat, no questions to be asked.  When Marsh learns the full incentive of the offer, however, he jumps on it—a dream truly come true.  A time later, Marsh finds himself happily plying the waters of the Mississippi once again.  But more questions remain.  York confines himself to his stateroom during the day, has a bizarre obsession with unsolved murders along the river, and his companions are a little long in the tooth—literally.  Little does Marsh know just how much stranger his life on the river is about to become.