Monday, November 28, 2016

Review of Version Control by Dexter Palmer

For most of us in the west, the manner in which life is channeled through the internet and the way media and people around us perpetually reinforce the perceived importance of science and technology, are now commonplace.  In tandem with our daily social interaction at work or school, we think nothing of maintaining a wide variety of online profiles/personalities, being social without being physically present, walking in a bubble of headphones, mobile phone or other gadgetry, and, generally speaking, existing at a virtual distance from tangible existence.  On the other end of that line, the related activities are being measured to greater and greater detail, to the point nearly everything we do is quantified in some fashion by somebody, often even ourselves.  Personal as well as Big Data being collected for a variety of purposes, our identities are scattered to social, corporate, consumer, and bureaucratic winds, and reconsolidated in one form or another for a variety of purposes.  Corporeal existence seemingly the last bastion for the idea of self as a whole, even self-perception renders that subjective.  Enter Dexter Palmer’s superb 2016 novel, Version Control. 

Rebecca Wright is an ordinary millennial.  Growing up in suburban New Jersey to a largely normal family, she goes to university, does relatively well, makes meaningful friendships while studying, and graduates believing a career is waiting for her.  Living with her parents while working a wide variety of part-time jobs throughout her 20s, Rebecca is nevertheless able to maintain her bffs from university.  The girls regularly going out for drinking and fun, the dynamic starts to change the older they get.  One by one the friends start relationships that slowly split the group apart, mostly through a dating website called Loveability.  Eventually, Rebecca gives in and creates her own profile.  Meeting the experimental physicist Philip Steiner, things take an unexpected turn in her life.  Phillip older than Rebecca by a few years, and possessing a personality far differently tuned from her own, Rebecca’s grounded, relaxed view contrasts heavily with his purposeful and abstract mindset.  But their marriage is only the beginning of changes in Rebecca’s life.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Review of Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

Perhaps no one was more surprised at the success of 2014’s Europe in Autumn than Dave Hutchinson himself. The novel’s ending what Adam Roberts described as a “knight’s move”, it did, however, give Hutchinson room—a lot of room—to expand the story. Opting for the series route, in 2015 a second novel appeared, Europe at Midnight. Running parallel to Autumn rather than extending its storyline, Hutchinson dug into the new setting presented by the knight’s move, while introducing other players in the game. 2016 sees the release of Europe in Winter (Solaris), the next (and penultimate?) novel in Hutchinson’s Fragmented Europe setting.

Rudi, the central figure of Europe in Autumn, was essentially a non-factor in Europe at Midnight. But he returns in Europe in Winter as the crux. While much of the narrative focuses on new characters and scenes, Rudi’s actions and decisions are the main river into which those tributaries dump their story. In fact, his drive to use the Coureurs to get into the nuts and bolts of the Community is the hinge upon which the novel swings. Perhaps the most plot-heavy novel of the series to date, Rudi’s deeper interest in the Community is triggered by a terrorist event on the Line at the outset of the novel. The Line a railway that is likewise as a polity, its autonomous traverse of the European continent is interrupted by a massive bomb. Not everything as it appears in the clean up, answers to Rudi’s questions are not readily available, and the further he digs, the larger the implications for Europe—fragmented, united, or alternate(d)—become.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review of Dark Universe by Daniel Galouye

With settings a toe or foot beyond the real world, science fiction is a literature which must often re-balance the elements of story in order to make room for itself. Character depth and rich verisimilitude the usual sacrificial offerings, science fiction can come across as a simplistic literature as a result. Golden Age sf is, indeed, so basic as to be fairy tale-ish. But in other cases, the simplicity can become something more; the author takes advantage of the possibilities inherent to their creation to assign additional levels of significance to its humble surface elements. Daniel Galouye’s Dark Universe (1961), as mythopoeic as the story is at heart, is one such novel. And did I mention setting?

Jared is one of the most daring members of his underground group of survivors. Enjoying his time alone in the pitch black caves and caverns they call home, he is experienced in echo reading and killing soo-bats. Click-stones constantly in hand sounding the way ahead, he tells no one that his real quest in life is not mere survival, but also to find light and darkness—concepts his group discuss only in religious tones. Believing demons of radiation haunt the under and overworld, the elders chastise Jared upon discovering the extent of his explorations, warning him of inhuman monsters in the depths and the dangers of another group of mutant humans called zivvers roaming the caverns. But Jared’s biggest problem may be the social pressure to unify. A girl named Della proposed for him, Jared initially feels the relationship will be unhelpful, a burden hindering his quest. That is, until he discovers more to Della than meets the ear.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Non-Fiction: Review of Sailing Alone around the World by Joshua Slocum

Sailing is one of civilized society’s most romantic endeavors.  Plying the world’s blue waters with nothing but a warm breeze and a sunset on the horizon brings cozy, enviable images to mind.  And sailing alone around the world?  Like scaling the highest peaks or cave diving to the deepest depths, such individual accomplishment appeals to the Western mind.  In the 21st century, world records for sailing solo around the world seem a contest of time (youngest, oldest, fastest, etc.…), but toward the end of the 19th century, apparently nobody of any age had done it.  Accomplishing the feat between 1895 and 1898, Joshua Slocum wrote about his experiences in the mysteriously titled Sailing Alone around the World.

Full of can-do American spirit, in 1895 Joshua Slocum looked to translate his many years of merchant marine experience into a solo sailing experience around the globe.  After refurbishing a 36 foot sloop named the Spray, Slocum set out from Boston for Europe one fine summer day, and never looked back.  Returning to Boston by way of Gibraltar, Buenos Aires, Tierra del Fuego, Samoa, Australia, and Cape Horn, his was a long trip, during which a lot of interesting people were met with, and, as seems natural, the occasional adventure.  (The goat may be the best.)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Review of Kings of Morning by Paul Kearney

Gritty, realistic, violent, pseudo-Spartan—these are the main adjectives characterizing Paul Kearney’s Macht series to date. Plot-driven worldbuilding, The Ten Thousand and Corvus have been prime examples of grimdark without the standard, medieval sword & sorcery fa├žade. The conclusion of Corvus requiring an additional novel, Kings of Morning (2011) completes the trilogy, though not in a manner the reader might assume.

Reversing the tables of The Ten Thousand, Kings of Morning opens in Kufr, and rumors of a massive Macht army approaching, bent on conquer. The situation in Kefran royalty anything but stable, the old king watches his two sons position themselves to kill the other and take his place as next in line, all the while his estranged wife plays political games behind the scenes, maintaining her own realm of power. Corvus, with the hardy Rictus among his generals, does indeed have his sights set on Kufr, and one city after another makes steady progress toward the capital, Ashura. The Kefran king, ignoring his familial troubles, musters the troops in response and rides out for a clash that will decide the kingdom.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review of Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

I am often a visual thinker, and upon completion of the third and final book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X: Southern Reach trilogy called Acceptance, I’m left with the image of a person standing. Annihilation forms one leg and Authority the other, while Acceptance forms the remainder of the body. Another way of saying this is, where Annihilation and Authority are capable of standing alone, Acceptance is built on the two novels, and in turn gives the overall storyline its complete visage.

And I have this image in mind for a few reasons. Annihilation, while flashing back to the Biologist’s life in the real world, was primarily set inside Area X. Authority was the opposite; Control read accounts and saw video of others’ experiences inside the strange region, but his story was set in the real-world, the world outside the physics-defying barrier separating Area X from normality. Acceptance is set in both, as well as stretches the timeframe to the series' max.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review of Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber

There are a lot of ways to get yourself out of a hole. Get a dog, drown yourself in work, take up a new hobby, and if all else fails, become a Christian—ha!, just kidding. (Buy a motorcycle; it will be more fun.) Another common enough approach is writing; keeping a journal is one way to get the funk out. Writing fiction is another. Surely there are many writers who have taken their frustrations with work or marriage out in their stories. But perhaps no one knows the cathartic value of writing better than Fritz Leiber.

The death of his wife, problems with alcohol, and a career not exactly sparkling with new book sales, in the mid-70s Fritz Leiber turned his issues over to the typewriter. Our Lady of Darkness (1977) the result, Leiber put on the page what had been ailing him—not in self-abusing, self-pitying form, rather in a semi-autobiographical, occult quest. What else would a writer of the supernatural do?

Monday, November 14, 2016

Review of The Exiled Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

Rather than volumes or books, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Assassini trilogy has been divided into acts. And it’s an important detail.   Reflective of the operatic mode, Act I The Fallen Blade introduced the characters and setting, and set them in motion; Act II The Outcast Blade dug deeper into the characters and issues between them, all the while setting the stage for Act III, The Exiled Blade (2013), to bring everything to a rousing conclusion.  Grimwood apparently possessing a solid knowledge of the art of theater, The Exiled Blade does not disappoint.

Drama is abound at the outset of the novel.  Alonzo, in a fit of potentially conceived rage, is exiled to Montenegro.  While this would seem to bring calm to Duke Marco’s court, there are rumors Alonzo is amassing forces of the Red Crucifix. In his wake, Alonzo leaves a corpse, a tiny corpse—Leopold, Giulieta’s son.  Tycho enraged at the death of his lover’s child, the young man with uncanny powers sets out on Alonzo’s path, intent on finding and killing him.  Meanwhile, Emperor Sigismund has his sights once again set on Venice, and sends his son Frederik as ambassador.  Frederik wooing the Lady Giulieta in Tycho’s absence, consoling her in her loss, matters are anything but settled in Venice…

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Review of Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

One of the strongest impressions left by Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, first in the Area X: Southern Reach trilogy, is the numerous avenues possible to understanding the text.  A psychological journey, treatise on subjectivity, metaphor for existence, or just plain Weird fiction—these are just a few of the major possibilities.  (Minds more critical than mine will find other significant paths winding through the novel.)  Continuing with the existential outlay, the second novel of the trilogy, Authority (2014), introduces the reader to an entirely new perspective on Area X, even as the subjectivity of perception digs its hooks deeper into the psyche of its characters.

In Authority, we get the main character’s name: John Rodriguez.  But for the majority of novel he is called Control—ironic given he is not a dominating personality.  Control begins the story taking over the recently vacated role of director at the Southern Reach.  While getting to know his new work environment and colleagues, he is tasked with interviewing a recent returnee from Area X, a biologist.  Her responses to his questions anything but coherent, Control’s understanding of Area X only becomes further clouded learning that the previous director disappeared under mysterious circumstances, possibly an illicit excursion into Area X.  But capping off the growing paranoia at the new job is the fact Control is required to give a daily report through a special mobile phone to something he dubs the Voice.  Seemingly on the edge of madness, the Voice makes odd demands, its emotional highs and lows erratic.  The mundanity of his life outside work clashing ever harder with the strain and oddness brought of Area X at work eventually take their toll on Control.  Something has to give.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Review of A Natural History of Hell by Jeffrey Ford

What are you checking out this review for? Go read Jeffrey Ford’s A Natural History of Hell (2016, Small Beer). Each of Ford’s collections to date has been a unique mix of all things fantastical, written in the most dynamic yet readable prose, and told in the voice of a man born to write, so what made you think his latest collection would be any different? Did you need a review just to make sure? Consider it confirmed…

But in all seriousness, A Natural History of Hell is yet another great collection of stories from Ford. In fact, the reader must nitpick in order to determine which of his collections—now five and counting—is the “best”, such is the consistency. It’s therefore ironic that Natural History is a very typical collection. The odd bits of autobiography and reminiscence, the real-world realities taking left turns, and the Weird, the fantastical, and the Weirdly fantastical—all continue to exist. But given the author seems to balk at familiar modes and tropes—flee, in fact—it all feels fresh and distinctive. Just another Ford collection...

Friday, November 4, 2016

Review of Voice from the Edge Vol. 1: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

It’s no secret, Harlan Ellison is one of the most controversial writers in fiction. And the reason is clear: he doesn’t pussyfoot around opinions. Most interesting is, perhaps, that his fiction walks the talk. Some of the sharpest, most incisive speculative fiction about humanity has come through the man’s typewriter. Something like quintessential Ellison, the 2011 collection Voice from the Edge Vol. 1: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, read by the author himself, portrays precisely the voice (literally and figuratively) that is so contentious, but is yet so adept at laying bare the most basic conundrums of existence. Whether you agree with Ellison’s hardline or not, the collection contains foundational speculative fiction material, and for that alone is worth reading/listening to.

Kicking things off is one of Ellison’s most famous works, the title story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”. The bizarre (emphasis on “bizarre”) tale of a surviving band of humans after an apocalyptic event, it describes the whim of a deeply cynical super-computer as their master. Ellison perfectly capturing the neurosis of the situation, madness pervades, leading one to wonder what, exactly, the computer is a stand-in for… The second story, despite being set in an entirely different setting, confirms who. More suffering, this time indirectly at the hands of a particularly regimented government, “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” may be the most representative Ellison story in the collection. Telling of a non-conformist and his experiences at the hands of an extreme-rote ruling body, the man’s ultimate fate in the system falls somewhere between Nineteen Eighty-four and A Clockwork Orange.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Review of Technologies of the Self by Haris A. Durrani

I ordinarily go unfazed by cover copy. We’ve reached the point where publishers seem to have a machine (the Hyperbolic 4X?) capable of spitting out cookie cutter statements—“magnificent”, “superb”, and other such giddiness—at the drop of a hat. But in the case of Haris A. Durrani’s Technologies of the Self (2016, Brain Mill Press), there was a concatenation of names difficult to ignore. John Crowley, Sofia Samatar, and Paul Park among them, all exuberantly vouched for the quality of Durrani’s debut, forcing me to rethink skipping the book.

In writing a debut novel (or in this case, novella), aspiring authors are advised to keep things simple. To some extent Durrani follows this advice: Technologies of the Self is the coming-of-age story of a young man named Jihad (or as he prefers to be called Joe) living in contemporary NYC. Post-colonial literature an established form, Durrani follows suit. Foregrounded are Joe’s Dominican-Pakistani heritage, time with family, and religious inclinations, all of which fit and clash, to larger and lesser degrees, with the so-called American norm. Where Durrani breaks the mold (at least partially so) is in using the devices of metaphor and symbolism to fantastical effect. Certainly more at home in literary fiction than cheap fantasy, the colorful interplay of what is real with what is not forms the backbone of the story. Joe recalls times with his uncle Tomas, an untamed man with uncanny stories of a demon. The demon appearing as a knight, woman, and other guises, and seemingly able to travel through time, Joe is awe-struck by Tomas’ stories, all the while bothered by problems in his daily life. The gears in his gearbox turning in different directions, Joe struggles to bring the workings of his soul/personality/identity into some semblance of united purpose.