Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Review of Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson

Cthulhu and hard sf are two branches of speculative fiction I have a dubious relationship with.  The triviality of humanity in terms of terror-inducing cosmic gods seems a cheap shot (Lem, for example, examines the unknowability of the great beyond with far more integrity in Solaris), and hard sf is so often a tedious yet pointless exercise: take an element of real-world science, extrapolate, then layer on a conventional plot to ‘see what happens’.  If no underlying human agenda exists, it becomes as much navel-gazing as ‘interesting scientific imagination’.  This is not to say either is incapable of being utilized with more substance, only that rarely is it done.  Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia (1998), a novel which wholeheartedly combines Cthulhu (in disguise) and hard sf, only confirms my stance.

At the turn of the 20th century, the “Miracle” has occurred.  Europe, along with its millions of people, has been physically removed from the map and replaced with a jungle that maps the old geological structure but whose flora and fauna are not of this Earth.  A New-New World born as a result, some Europeans living in the Americas return to settle the continent, even as the US flexes its muscles as the unrivaled leaders of civilization.  Accounts varying as to why and how the Miracle happened, religion and science have a new point of contention in their ongoing ideological war.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Review of The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson's debut novel, The Wild Shore, was an interesting re-visioning of Southern California. Post-apocalyptic yet pastoral, he destroyed the US with nuclear bombs then imagined what the first few phases of re-building might be like. Agrarian lifestyles all around, the characters attempt to recover the technology and other aspects of civilization destroyed by the H-bombs but start with the basics of farming and harvesting. Grassroots on one hand and revenge-oriented nationalism on the other, KSR used the resulting tension to emphasize the fundamental socio-political differences at work, leaving his main character, and as a result the reader, at a key divergence of perspective. With the release of the second novel in the Orange County series, The Gold Coast (1988), Robinson proves the future of SoCal can be re-imagined from an entirely different perspective—not definitively post-ap, but certainly relatively so—without chipping any of its critical teeth.

Orange County covered with cars, condos, strip malls, advertizements, franchises, street lights, housing developments—commercialism galore, The Gold Coast looks at some of the social and economic problems inherent to the capitalist market model. Robinson utilizing the lenses of the weapons industry and restlessness of youth culture as his main plot drivers, the novel centers on the McPherson family. The father Kevin is a high-level engineer working for one of the nation's largest weapons researchers and manufacturers, Laguna Space Research. Getting privileged treatment from the government for a super-black project, his life is turned upside down when, in the middle of preparing the proposal, it's announced his effort is mostly in vain: the project will go white. Things begin to spiral from there. Kevin's son, Jim, is a twenty-something working several part-time jobs to keep things together, though he still partially depends on his parents. It's his time with his friends, however, where he finds the most enjoyment in life. Designer drugs and parties every night, his only trouble seems to be finding a meaningful outlet for his energy—terrorism not above him.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Review of Roadside Bodhisattva by Paul Di Filippo

I suppose every writer may want to write a road novel at some point in time in their career. The open air, the off-the-wall people to be met, the moment to moment existence with little concern for the long-term—it's a life easier to imagine than live, and thus perfect material for fiction. A writer who has covered an immense lot of proverbial ground, I believe Roadside Bodhisattva (2010) to be Paul Di Filippo's road novel.

An appropriate point, the novel opens with a hitchhiker being dropped in the middle of nowhere by a yuppie more concerned about his house getting robbed than he is of getting any gas money for the ride. After walking a few miles on the desolate country road, the hitchhiker, a sixteen year old runaway, encounters a grungy but savvy elderly man camped beneath a tree. The man named Sid and the young man not wanting to give his name becoming Kid A, the two strike up a conversation and have a meal as the sun sets. Forming an awkward partnership the next morning, the pair continue down the road looking for breakfast, and find a lonely countryside diner cum motel. Little do the duo know of the people and life which wait inside.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Review of Equations of Life by Simon Morden

For certain there is a core of genre—stories and novels with easily identifiable elements clustered around commonly used tropes and settings, and Simon Morden's Samuil Petrovitch trilogy, led off by the novel Equations of Life (2011), is a prime example. A science fiction thriller, it tells of a smart-talking, brilliant young physicist who accidentally gets in over his head, and soon enough the mob and machine intelligence want it—his head, that is.

A standard story, but one that Morden reveals carefully and assuredly, Equations of Life steadily reveals the “reality” of the novel, even as it becomes more and more distant from ours. One ordinary day, Petrovitch is walking one of London's main squares and happens upon a kidnapping, and, for better or worse, decides to help the victim. Winding up protecting the daughter of a yakuza boss, his reward is soon enough offset by death threats from the Ukrainian mob which was trying to kidnap her, all the while a strange detective starts keeping tabs on his personal life. Experimental technology floating in the laboratories of the yakuza's massive corporation, strange messages begin to appear on Petrovitch's mobile, and it isn't long before his understanding of the world gets spun upside down, all the while various groups try to cut short his time on it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Review of Broken Angels of Richard Morgan

Richard Morgan’s debut novel Altered Carbon was a straight-forward cyberpunk murder mystery that got by on vivid description as well as mainstream genre’s craving for more of the same, repackaged. The main character Takeshi Kovacs was a classic sf hero. Taking the law into his own hands to fight the bad guys and the corrupt system as needed, he survived the attempts on his life, killed the baddies in vengeful fashion, all the while getting to the bottom of things to catch the murderer. Broken Angels (2003), the second Takeshi Kovacs novel, finds the hero oriented in a new, perhaps more cynical, direction.

Now a mercenary fighting in inter-solar system corporate wars, at the beginning of Broken Angels Kovacs lies in convalescence after having been wounded in battle. A mate in the hospital having news too good to be true, he tells Kovacs of an alien artifact discovered on Mars, just waiting to be exploited. Kovacs convinced, he and the mate spring the archeologist who discovered the artifact from prison and are soon on their way to discover what exotic riches lie in wait. Trouble is, the war is still going on, and more than just Kovacs know about the artifact…

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review of neoAddix by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

As is clear, the appearance of any sub-genre in fiction is noticed after the fact. Sources diverse, the individual components that bond it into a coherent motif are apparent but not universal. The first works identified as “cyberpunk” possess a cybernet here, a multi-national there, neon-noir here and virtual existence there. But it took William Gibson’s Neuromancer to unite them all into a single, identifiable concept, thus letting the world know what has been happening elsewhere, and by default beginning a second-wave. The second wave wherein writers consciously play with the components comprising the sub-genre, by the time the third wave has hit the mainstream, it has almost entirely been reduced to an easily identifiable aesthetic. Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s 1997 neoAddix is third-wave cyberpunk of the purest distillation.

Fully cognizant of the diverse elements comprising the aesthetic of cyberpunk, as well as possessing a sophisticated sense of style, Grimwood invests in neoAddix all of his knowledge of the sub-genre, producing a finely-honed product in the process. Where some readers may be displeased with Gibson for ignoring the more conventional side of crime and corruption in his cyberpunk Sprawl, Grimwood dives directly in, telling of dishonest CEOs, multi-national corp greed, Yakuza dealings in data terrorism, hipster street kids caught up in affairs over their head, and of course, data jockeys running the golden sphere of the global net. A hard-edged thriller, Grimwood keeps the pedal to medal the entire length of his neon-tinted thriller in perfect cyberpunk style.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Review of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Some novels dance on tippie-toes across an elegant marble floor. Some shift dodgily through dark shadows. Some grind and bleed in trenches. And some just rear back and punch you as hard they can. Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West is a ten-ton hammer.

If there is any common thread to the body of work Cormac McCarthy has effected to date, it would have to be a weary acceptance of the blanket of malevolence pervasive to mankind, a malevolence offset by the sparks of altruism lying latent within everyone. A sky of cloud with a single spot of blue. The blackest of thunderheads, Blood Meridian presents a historical re-visioning of Manifest Destiny and the Mexican-American War, particularly the rural skirmishes and small-town conflicts that took place in the present-day American southwest and northern Mexico. All would seem to strike much closer to a gritty truth that textbooks and Hollywood Westerns may have us believe was more romantic.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Review of Wetware by Rudy Rucker

One positive sign that a sequel will be worthy of the original is the time between publishings. The current practice to rush out the next book as soon as possible, there is more than one example of a sequel simply not matching the quality of the original. With time, however, a writer is generally able to work their idea over, crimp and mold it, poke and prod it to better fit a natural extension of things. Rudy Rucker’s Ware tetralogy a great example, as the six years between the first novel Software and the second Wetware (1988) confirms the theory.

Humanity having taken over the moon and driven the boppers underground, Wetware opens with tense meatie-bopper relations. Trading with the humans while occasionally setting off bombs on the lunar surface, the boppers themselves are not united, however. One bopper in particular has strange ideas about implanting robot sentience into a human body. A secretary waking from a haze of a new drug called Merge, she finds her boy-toy boyfriend murdered and a maniacal man triumphing over her. Realizing she is pregnant in the aftermath, she returns to Earth without telling anyone—becoming a case for the now sober Sta-Hi Mooney to investigate with his burgeoning private eye business. Meatie-bopper relations taking on all new proportions as the secretary’s “child” is born, life will never be defined the same in Rucker’s world.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Review of Mothers & Other Monsters by Maureen McHugh

There is a lot made these days of cultural diversity and social representation in genre fiction. The problem is, the majority of the books and stories which reviewers praise as progressive are generally formulaic fiction with a thin veneer of political correctness layered on. Emily Foster’s The Drowned Eyes or Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire, among many other examples, garner rave reviews about their portrayal of women, non-whites, non-heterosexuals, etc. But at their core they are extremely familiar stories with little actual examination of the humanity behind the social justice buzz words. More indicative of the problem is that books like Maureen McHugh’s Mothers & Other Monsters (2005), books that portray real human concerns in diverse social and cultural arenas without the lip service, get overlooked by the majority of mainstream readers.

One example is that McHugh portrays non-heroic characters. “Laika Comes Back Home” is a great example of fiction that addresses the social concerns of poverty. Perhaps the most gut-wrenchingly piece in the collection, it describes the life of a teen girl in rural America. Her broken family, her lack of prospects, and the actions of the teens around are related in near perfect terms. (Seemingly the only thing missing is a meth addiction.) Touching and relevant, McHugh presents an empathetically real scenario without ever condescending to cheap tricks. The story “Presence” does something similar. About a woman dealing with a husband with Alzheimer’s, McHugh does an amazing job bringing the realities of the disease to the page, all the while incorporating a subtle genre conceit to brighten the day. Great story.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Review of The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Gene Wolfe’s Latro novels are a brilliant addition to literature. Examining the subjectivity of memory, and its role in creating identity and purpose in life, the three books tell of the wounded soldier and his experience with anterograde amnesia (i.e. everyday he forgets anew). His past only what he chooses to write in a scroll at the end of the day, he has forgotten the enemies he fought in battle, as well as the horrific details from the battlefield. He lives, from some perspectives, as innocent as a child. Taking this concept but developing it toward cultural memory is Kazuo Ishiguro’s fantastic The Buried Giant (2015).

Arthurian England rather than ancient Greece, Ishiguro brings to bear several familiar tropes of British classic literature and legend; there are knights and dragons, castles and ogres. But never are they the focus—never do they overtake the storyline, pushing it toward the current mainstream of epic fantasy. Like Wolfe’s Latro, Ishiguro keeps his prose deceivingly simple and his characters few in number, thus allowing on his true themes and ideas to shine through.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Review of Crackpot Palace by Jeffrey Ford

Most writers choose to use the introductions to their novels and collections in fairly predictable fashion; either a reminiscence of the times the book was published, or an explanation of the mindset at work. Jeffrey Ford runs the other way at the outset of his 2012 collection Crackpot Palace: Stories. A delightfully lateral piece of quasi-fiction, it hints at mindset while describing, in far from certain terms, the strange well from which the unique, diverse, and very well-written stories that follow were drawn.

But there is no way the stories are entirely cracked. “The Dream of Reason” is set in an uncanny place, but rings truer than true in it’s identification of the human desire for knowledge. One of my personal favorites in Ford’s entire oeuvre, it tells of an arcane scientist hypothesizing upon the reality of light. When a grand invention to test his ideas proves infeasible, he strikes out in a new direction, one that leads him to knowledge he never dreamed but at the expense of something priceless. Combining the reality of reality, a strong voice, and an engaging premise, it is one of Ford’s most philosophical pieces. Written for the VanderMeers’ anthology Odd?, “Weiroot” is indeed entirely odd on the surface, and would seem to fit Ford’s introduction. But beneath is a touching bit of parenthood, as abstract as it may be. A mythological beast brought into creation, it offers tangentially profound insight into raising children. A riff on the Salvador Dali painting of the same name, “Daddy Long Legs of the Evening” is a piece of light-hearted albeit surreal horror. About a boy who has a spider burrow into his brain as an infant, he develops into a spider man (that requires no copyright releases). Kafka’s Metamorphosis after a dose of lysergic diethylamide…

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review of The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson

I’ve been living in Europe for almost seven years, and the metaphor I’ve come to, comparing the US to the EU, is that Americans are like 18 year-old boys. Full of energy and creativity, they jump on ideologies and drive them passionately, often blindly, all with a case of Budweiser underarm. Europe, on the other hand, is like a staid forty year-old man holding a glass of wine. He’s seen the world, he has centuries and centuries of history behind his culture, and he watches his pace, wary of running too fast in any direction.

Kim Stanley Robinson captures this juxtaposition wonderfully in The Wild Shore (1984). His debut novel, it tells of Hank Fletcher, and his growing up on the coast of California after the US has been destroyed by atomic bombs. Humane pastoral rather than zombie grimdark, Robinson focuses his energy on the personal and political reaction to the bombing, and examining the best paths toward recovery.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Review of Far North by Marcel Theroux

Is it possible to finish a book, be full of criticism, and yet still open to recommending it? Marcel Theroux’s Far North (2009) has precisely this effect. There are many technical and stylistic aspects that could have been improved, but at its core, the story is readily relatable, a sliver of humanism tucked in amongst the warts.

Makepeace is sheriff of an abandoned town. An unnamed catastrophe having wiped out the majority of people on Earth, she lives in Siberia, patrolling empty streets on a horse, snow swirling around her. Drifters move in and out of the abandoned homes, traders sometimes visit, and the occasional outlaw requires quieting. An airplane crashing on a hill near her town one day, Makepeace is inspired to act: find the source of civilization able to fly airplanes. Prisoner, slave, and lab rat—her resulting journey into the wilds of Siberia is anything but what she hoped. Fate, however, does have the last word.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Review of Corvus by Paul Kearney

Paul Kearney’s 2008 The Ten Thousand was Frank Miller’s 300 without the affected style or overwrought sentiment. Getting down and dirty, and grinding it out phalanxes, Kearney told the gritty story of an army of mercenaries escaping the jaws of death after an ill-fated decision by their employer. Tight in detail and military tactics, the novel was epic fantasy in Sparta, and unique for it. Apparently also successful, Kearney was signed to write an additional two novels in the setting, the first of which is Corvus (2010).

Rictus, now in old age, is returning home with the other Dogsheads from his last commission. Retiring to his farm in the mountains of the Macht, he settles into domestic life, his family and servants glad to have him back. But it’s not to last. A brilliant young general moves through the land, seeking to unite the free states of the Macht under one banner. Knocking at the farm one day, he gives Rictus an offer he can’t refuse. Rictus’ resulting decision having dire consequences, the land becomes swept up in a battle for control and freedom that will change the Macht forever.