Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review of Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley

Glorious, just glorious.  Taxonomizing Robert Sheckley’s 1968 Dimension of Miracles brings me to no different term.   I can think of no other category, no other fiction type, nothing to reduce its cleverness, humor, philosophy, its…  dynamic metaphysicality to a set term.  I fear even writing this review will render it absurd, skew it beyond focus to the point the commentary does not resemble the novel.  Best to start with the salient facts…

Tom Carmody is a winner of a galactic lottery—incorrectly so, but the prize insists he not give up the position.  The prize itself an object of chaos, Carmody is whisked away from Earth on a galactic tour that leaves him not only breathless, but desperate to return home.  Lacking the coordinates of Where, When, and Which, however, sets him on an urgent search—a search that gets even more desperate when Carmody learns a predator of his own creation chases him through the universe. 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review of Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock

Joan Slonczewski’s 1984 science fiction novel A Door into Ocean is notable for its depiction of parthenogenesis.  Likely the first book to depict human reproduction without spermatozoa, the women of the planet Shora maintained peace and harmony partially through this form of genealogical and gender control.  The novel as a whole is a bit gimmicky, but a human society which can reproduce itself without a two-gender dichotomy is an interesting idea in the least.  Taking it and imbuing it with the verisimilitude necessary for achieving relevancy is Anne Charnock’s third novel Dreams Before the Start of Time (2017, 47North).

Featuring generations of friends and family, Dreams Before the Start of Time is technically a saga.  Lacking the operatics the term is known for, however, the novel chooses instead to look into the human details of how pregnancy and realistic, alternate forms of reproduction might impact people’s thoughts and views about life, as well as the thoughts and views of the children and people brought to life through these non-standard means.  Each chapter told from a different character’s perspective, the narrative perpetually evolves through the personal reflections and social dynamics inherent to the scenarios.  Presentation more open-ended than manipulative, Charnock allows the potential of each scene and chapter to form its own thought flowers in the reader’s mind, the resulting worldview one balanced between Charnock’s and the reader’s perspective. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review of Remainder by Tom McCarthy

For many years my mother was a care worker for autistic youth.  One older boy she worked with, as part of his condition, did not distinguish reality from fiction.  He watched Spiderman on tv and therefore Spiderman was real.  At any moment the superhero could come swinging down from the trees outside the front door to zip and/or zap some baddie—zero distance between his reality and DC comic’s created reality. Of course for most of us the distance is greater than zero.  But it remains a question of subject and degree.  Some people keep a distance from the created realities of books, films, television and the other arts we immerse ourselves in regularly, while others draw closer, and are even capable of reciprocity.  (Have you seen, for minor example, the costumes at ComicCon or a Trekkie convention?)  Looking at an ordinary man who goes from a normal distance to zero, Tom McCarthy’s brilliant debut Remainder (2005) looks at created realities, our interest in and response to them—and in a manner significantly more intriguing than dressing up as Spiderman.

A delicate spiral, Remainder looks at art imitating life, life imitating art, and most importantly, movement between the two spheres as one becomes the other, all in strongly Ballardian fashion.  The blurring of lines creating a quiet personal crisis that spills over into the public domain in less than ideal fashion, the novel is disturbing from a pure story point of view: one man’s estrangement from reality becomes an obsession with realizing the “reality” thereof.   But from purely a thematic point of view, the novel is far less disturbing, rather more stimulating, captivating.  The interplay of the story’s devices and elements forms an engine whose potential parallels to real-world subject matter perpetually set the gears of thought turning.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Review of The Cosmology of the Wider World by Jeffrey Ford

Flustered by the originality of the premise, I don’t even know where to begin reviewing Jeffrey Ford’s 2005 The Cosmology of the Wider World.  How does one start introducing a story about a minotaur caught in the doldrums of life—his great work of academia not shaping up as planned, nor his personal life one of contentedness or satisfaction?  How does the reviewer begin to explain that, yes, some of the main characters include a tortoise, an owl, an ape, a whale—even a mad flea, and yet the human condition forms the story’s core?   I don’t know…

Born to a normal man and woman, Belius nevertheless emerges from the womb half man and half bull.  A sharp young lad, he grows up normally on their farm, though, his father goes to pains to let the cows out to feed only at night while Belius is sleeping.  But they can’t be kept hidden forever, and one stormy night Belius’ understanding of the world comes crashing down around him.  Coming to live in the Wider World in the aftermath, a place where only animals exist, Belius sets himself the task of defining its cosmology in an attempt to reconcile his half-man, half-beast state of being.  But long hours of writing, of collecting knowledge and putting it down on paper, does not suffice, and thus Belius sets out to get special assistance putting his soul back in order.

Review of Defender by C.J. Cherryh

A couple of years have passed since the events of Precursor, but the animosity of the Phoenix captains still burns hot toward atevi and Mospherian interests.  Despite this, atevi workers have made significant progress repairing the station, and no open fighting has occurred between the two sides.  But things change abruptly when Captain Ramirez dies.  Revealing secretive information about the distant space station Reunion and naming Jase as his replacement on his deathbed, events onboard the station move quickly from business as usual to full alert.  A mission to Reunion planned in the aftermath, Tabini nominates Bren, his grandmother Illisidi, and his sone Cajeiri to travel with Mospheiran and Phoenix representatives on the faster than light ship.  But with questions of power and authority during the long flight up in the air, will the ship ever leave Phoenix? 

Defender better than some of the books in the Foreigner sequence, Cherryh does a superb job keeping the suspense high.  Tabini’s actions seemingly inexpicable in the early going, Bren’s doubts about his position, which, when coupled with an unexpected assassination, serve to keep the diplomat/linguist squarely on his toes.  Meeting the would-be captain of the space flight to Reunion, a hard woman named Sabin, only puts him stronger on the alert.  The climactic scene taught with tension, it isn’t until the last moment the reader leanrs whether or not the proposed flight will take place.  And the mystery of what awaits on Reunion?  Well, that is for Explorer to define.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Review of And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees by Michael Bishop

There are many who would take utopia to have static meaning: society achieves a state of perfection and there exists until the end of time (oh, you Christians…).  Human dynamism and its trend toward perpetual change, however, would hint at said impossibility.  Seemingly unable to plateau, the presentation of a static society thus makes for ironically interesting material. 1976 saw the release of two novels addressing the very idea: Brian Aldiss’ The Malacia Tapestry and Michael Bishop’s And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees (later renamed Beneath the Shattered Moons). 

Ingram Marley is assistant to a magi named Gabriel Elk.  A magi who stages neuro-dramas for the aristocracy on the island of Ongladred on the planet Mansueceria, Elk is able to get around his society’s restrictions on cultural performances by choreographing shows with reanimated bodies of the dead using leftover technology few, if any, still understand.  Buying a corpse of a beautiful young woman in the early going, a new show debuts a few days later.  Featuring a poetry reading, it incites strong political discussion amongst the bourgeois of Ongladred in the dinner discussion that follows.  Ongladredan culture living under the perpetual threat of imminent collapse, when an attack from raiders does occur a few weeks later, Elk and Marley are called upon to employ their technology in defense.  Trouble is, is the defense too late?  Has Ongladred shot itself in the proverbial foot with its cultural practices?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review of Clade by James Bradley

Used so many times, it’s even got an abbreviation: post-ap.  Such is the dearth of near-future, civilization-destroyed, human-survival-in-extreme-circumstances, stories.  The market is saturated, pure and simple.  What to do then, to help yourself stick out from the crowd?  For his 2015 novel Clade, James Bradley went with a two-pronged attack.  Right prong: put real people at the center of your story (as opposed, for example, to the oft-tried but ne’er achieved relevancy of zombies) and left prong: use a non-standard story structure.

The result is an apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic novel more in the vein of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven than anything calling itself Night of the Living Dead.  Technically a saga (thankfully lacking the melodrama), Clade starts with an Australian scientist and his artist wife as Earth is just tipping over the edge of major environmental change, and wades in (no pun intended) as their children and grandchildren eventually deal with ever worsening conditions—flooding, drought, famine, disease, heat waves, and resource deprivation among them. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Review of Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman

Just when you thought nothing original—truly original (I am, after all, a semi-cynical bibliophile)—could be done with Hitler and his legacy, along comes a story that blows the lid off.  Finding a crack in a secret history and tearing it wide open one utterly unpredictable page after another is Ned Beauman’s 2010 Boxer, Beetle.

Written in wry, clever prose that generates scene momentum toward the overarching storyline, Boxer, Beetle is the story of Seth Roach, a 4-foot-11, nine-toed, Jewish boxer looking to take his revenge on the idea of life in London of 1936.  Boozing, whoring, gambling and getting in fights in and out of the ring, Roach is a veritable tornado of spite and gall.  A unique physical specimen to say the least, he draws interest from would-be scientist Philip Erskine in the the early going of the novel.  Offered 50 quid a day if he can be measured and observed for eugenics research, Roach gives Erskine a slap to the face.  But erratic choices eventually drag him to the gutter, and Roach is forced to give in to the service of Erskine.  It takes learning what Erskine is doing with a colony of exotic beetles from Poland, however, for Roach to clue himself in to what precisely the word "eugenics" means...

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Review of Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe

There are some writers who seek to be as unique as possible—and fail or succeed in trying.  And there are some who try to use as many familiar ideas as is possible.  And yet still, there are writers who try to use familiar ideas in their own unique way.  Though he has written some truly original stories, I still place Gene Wolfe in the latter category.  Inspired by fiction around him, Wolfe has tackled a number of major tropes from genre, e.g. generation starship in The Book of the Long Sun, sword and sorcery in The Book of the New Sun, Arthurian adventure in The Wizard Knight, Orwellian dystopia in Operation Ares, a ghost story in Peace—just to name a few.  It didn’t come as a surprise then, when it was announced Wolfe would be publishing a pirate novel, Pirate Freedom appearing in 2007.

Pirate Freedom is the story of Chris.  An elderly priest in our time and an apprentice monk in a Cuba of more than two hundred years ago, for the majority of the novel the reader follows the young man’s adventures as he abandons the thought of one day wearing the black to have a life on the sea.  Abandoned by his own father at the monastery as a child, when Chris is sixteen he makes the choice to leave the brotherhood with only a penny or two to his name.  Traversing the wharves of Havana, it isn't long before he is hired onto a ship commissioned to escort a galleon loaded with gold back to Spain.  The trip going smoothly, Chris signs on for the return trip.  But before the sloop can arrive back in port, things go haywire. Pirates capture the vessel and Chris is faced with a choice from the captain: join the crew or be marooned on the next deserted island.  Chris takes the third option, and it makes all the difference.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Review of To Die in Italbar by Roger Zelazny

Even uncle wiki says it: Roger Zelazny’s novels show a tendency for cosmology.  This Immortal… uses Greek mythology, Creatures of Light and Darkness Egyptian, Lord of Light Hindu—these and others show a fondness for the belief systems underpinning cultures old and new.  While more indirect, Zelazny’s 1973 To Die in Italbar dallies with the Christ myth, just in less successful fashion.

Dropped into the the middle of the action, To Die in Italbar opens on a scene of sabotage.  A man named Malacar and his furry, mind-reading, alien companion plant bombs at a warehouse, and as a result destroy innocents as well as a horde of valuable trade goods.  Meanwhile on another planet, a man named Hymack stumbles through a forest riddled with diseases.  Collapsing near death, a goddess visits and heals him.  The next day he wanders into the nearby town and begins performing his own miracles at the local hospital.  But a switch somewhere flips, and the healing suddenly turns to infection, and giving life turns to suffering, sometimes death. The townsfolk wanting to kill him as a result, Hymack is forced to flee into the forest.  When Malacar learns of Hymack and his power to infect, an idea forms, and he sets out to capture the strangely powered man for his own ill intent.  There are still others, however, with different plans in mind for Hymack. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Review of The People's Police by Norman Spinrad

It’s perhaps an understatement to say the political situation in the US the past year or two has been a powder keg.  Strong opinion seemingly held on all sides (except the moderates, har har), innumerable fingers point in innumerable directions, attempting to assign fault for the ills that plague the country.  From “Why can’t we all love each other?” to “Divide and conquer”, the spectrum of opinion is vast even as the country’s problems appear to become worse.  Politicians and policy makers looking to button up the holes with new laws, Norman Spinrad’s 2017 novel The People’s Police asks: is an ever increasing litigious society not, in fact, the reason behind a lot of the ills?

The effects of Hurricane Katrina and 2008’s economic recession not hard enough on New Orleans, in 2020 another recession hits: the Great Deflation.  Once again due to overeager money lenders delivering loans that buyers cannot repay, the Big Easy finds itself in a poor way as the value of the dollar plummets.  Criminal activity is on the uptake as tourism—the main source of income for the city—is on the down.  Enter Luke Martin, a swamp rat who pulled himself up by the bootstraps hard enough to get a high school diploma and an invitation to police academy.  He is given the task of establishing a new precinct on the edge of the Alligator—New Orleans least lustrous side—and does so with gusto.  Around this time a woman named Marylou becomes inhabited by a loa and starts her own daytime tv show, Mama Legba and her Supernatural Krewe—the show’s popularity only increasing by the day.  And among the city’s elite stands, J.B. Lafitte, a hometown entrepreneur with his hands in a lot of pies, including local prostitution, souvenir shops, and gambling houses.  But he also has the interest of the city at heart, so when election time comes, and the northern half of Louisiana confirms its extremely conservative candidate for governor, Lafitte cooks up his own local candidate—a very liberal one, to say the least.  With a little help from Martin’s newly formed police group, as well as Mamma Legba herself, things might be looking up for the Big Easy, that is, if the National Guard doesn’t get called in…

Friday, March 3, 2017

Review of The Summer Isles by Ian R. Macleod

Despite it’s half-century of age, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four still gets a lot of air time in relation to political brainwashing and totalitarianism.  An extreme novel, it resorts to violence in converting the mindset of Winston Smith to believe 2+2 = 5, begging the question: what of the majority—the people who support the Party but did not need violence as motivation?  Where is the passivity inherent to such socio-political states, the subtlety of the human condition which allows oppression to become the norm?  After all, rarely are real-world governments as overtly tyrannical as Big Brother.  Jumping in to the gap to paint tyranny in a verisimilitude poignant, sobering, and realistic is Ian R. Macleod’s brilliantly penned The Summer Isles (2005).

A work of alternate history, The Summer Isles sets itself post-WWI in a scenario in which England lost the war.  John Arthur, a powerful right-wing politician, has come to power in the aftermath, and begun implementing conservative policies.  At the outset of the novel, the aging Griffin Brooke, former teacher of John Arthur, is drowning in self-pity.  Hope for a meaningful relationship lost as he wallows in the memories of a long ago affair, he takes a bigger hit when told by his physician that terminal lung cancer will end his life much sooner than expected.  An academic career at Oxford running stale and perpetual wariness at revealing his homosexuality taking its toll, Brooke consigns himself to his fate and elects to take a drastic measure in his last days on Earth.  The idyll of the summer isles is not far off.

Review of Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

It’s normal enough to open a book review by making a general observation about the common nature of this or that trope in fiction, and then go on to introduce a book that twists said trope in some fashion. Perhaps there are too many notches on my reading belt, but many a time I have read such reviews, read the book in question, then thought to myself “In fact there is nothing really unique about the novel…  It is a blatant representation of the trope, only the details of setting or character differ slightly….”  Thus, while no two grains of sand may be alike, standing on a beach they all look the same.  Robert Charles Wilson’s time travel novel Last Year (2016) is standing on the beach—the perfect metaphor for the most appropriate place to read the book.

Jesse Cullum is a strapping young man employed as security by The City, a specialized urban area constructed in the Illinois prairie in the mid-19th century by 21st century tycoon August Kemp.  Kemp having constructed a time portal between 2016 and 1877, The City contains hotels and other accommodations for people from the future to visit the past, and likewise provides tourist attractions for locals to come and see wondrous things from the future, such as helicopters and smartphones.  Cullum saving the life of President Ulysses Grant from a would-be assassin in the opening pages, the follow-up investigation reveals a trickle of illegal guns from the future, somehow being trafficked through the time portal.  Cullum a hero as a result, he is given a raise and assigned the task of finding the source of the guns.  Meeting 21st century agent Elizabeth DePaul in the process, together the two get to the bottom of the smuggling ring.  But that is only the beginning.  Political agitators and Kemp’s secret ambitions, as well as ghosts from Cullum’s past rising to the surface, things heat up for Cullum, and fast.  Time seems to hold no influence on greed and payback.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review of The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

Tucked into the middle of Ian Whates’ 2014 anthology Solaris Rising 3 is Adam Robert’s short story “Thing and Sick”.  Garnering little to no notice, it tells of two researchers sitting out long nights in Antarctica on a SETI project.  Together they maintain radios and machinery, cables and computer programs, but their free time serves only to widen the divide between their personalities.  One an introverted Kant fanatic, the other a more extroverted, pop culture kind of guy, trouble brews when the latter agrees to sell the former one of his personal letters from their weekly mail drops.  Possessing just the right tinge of something-else-ness to make the story science fiction, I thought “Roberts amalgamates philosophy, suspense, the isolation of Antarctica, and a minor character study in a truly compelling story. And the last line?  Beautifully slingshot.”  The slingshot, apparently, was into a novel.  In 2015 Roberts revealed the arching shot, titled The Thing Itself.

Positively non-standard in structure and form (a refreshing break from the glut of less-than-inspiring sf currently flooding the market), The Thing Itself extends the story of the two Antarctic researchers, Roy Curtius and Charles Gardner, to make the short story a prologue for the two’s later experiences in life, as well as the wild array of tributary fiction.  Missing toes and disfigured by frostbite, Gardner is unable to return to normal life in the UK after his time in the Antarctica with Curtius.  He descends into bad relationships and alcoholism and ends up working at a landfill for years before he is contacted by a scientist from a cutting edge institute.  Lured to the facility with promises of monthly compensation, car, and living quarters, it isn’t long before the secrets of the institute start revealing themselves.  Curtius living in a mental institution, he demands to see Gardner before he will reveal to the institute any of the advanced SETI programming he wrote while in Antarctica.  Gardner finally agreeing to meet with Curtius, it turns out to be a decision he will regret.  Reality slipping steadily away underfoot, the thing itself becomes as muddied as it does lucid.