Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review of Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Humanity’s written history perpetual for such a time now, fiction set in yesteryear has become an area of writing unto itself—a whole branch of novels and books overlaying stories of their own onto facts as we know them.  And the success of well-written historical fiction is natural; humanity remains as interested in its past as it does its future.  The real challenge for a writer of such novels is to include an agenda relevant to the contemporary world.  Focusing on the history of North America’s forests, interweaving them with the tales of multiple generations of two families, with Barkskins (2016) Annie Proulx proves that historical fiction can be every bit as relevant as contemporary fiction.

Barkskins is the story of two indentured servants, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, and the generations of their families that disperse throughout the centuries that follow—blue collar to white, lumberjack to aristocrat.  Sent by their king in the mid 17th century to cut timber in Nouveau France, the two men arrive together in the same dense, mosquito-infested forest, but quickly move in different directions.  Sel remains on the land, indifferent to the mistreatment by his lord, and clears space for a family and livelihood.  Duquet, on the other hand, escapes servitude and puts into action ideas that will fulfill his dreams of being a man of empire.  Both men’s lives taking unexpected turns toward their respective goals, they live long enough to father children, children who carry on the family names in equally interesting and varied means.  But always the forests remains a part of their lives, even as it dwindles around them.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Review of Passion Play by Sean Stewart

There is very little cyberpunk which brings religion in as a major theme.  Its concerns largely technological, biological, existential, political, post-human, etc., most dystopian corporate futures seem to assume faith and belief-based systems have once and finally been drowned by ‘civilization’.  A peripheral element at best, it’s rare to see Christianity, Buddhism, or any other religion defining the terms on which a cyberpunk novel is written.  (I’m aware there are works like George Alec Effinger’s Maid series which feature Islam heavily, but the religion appears for setting and plot backdrop alone.  Effinger does not go into the meaning of its system in a silicon world.)  This is certainly what makes Sean Stewart’s 1992 novel Passion Play so intriguing - and thankfully re-released in 2017 by Dover Publications.

It is the dark, corporate near-future, and a group of Christian fundamentalists, calling themselves The Redemptionists, have taken political power in the United States.  In the opening chapter, investigator Diane Fletcher is called to the scene of a brutal murder—a woman stabbed to death in her apartment for reasons unclear.  Fletcher a shaper (person who can glean hints of underlying emotion or thought from other people in conversation), she begins investigating the case, and quickly discovers that a local reverend, a radical Redemptionist, took matters into his own hands and elected to kill the woman for the sin of adultery.  With little time to ruminate on the reverend’s honesty, Fletcher packs the man away to prison and inevitable death sentence, and is then called to the scene of another murder, this time the actor Jonathan Mask, a man positioned high in Redemptionist circles.  The murder suspects limited in number, Fletcher begins interviewing them one by one, but ultimately, finds her questions facing in a surprising direction.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review of The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett

Exceptional powers more a burden than a gift, Cyril Hayes—company man to the powerful McNaughton Corporation—lives his corporate agent life in a haze of opium and alcohol.  Able to discern the inner workings of people’s minds if he can spend a couple of hours with them, Hayes uses his talents for the benefit of the Corporation, sniffing out moles and frauds, informants and spies, and always in a back room.  The unions in the metropolis of Evesden growing ever more powerful, Hayes’ investigative work begins to get uglier and uglier.  Dead bodies turning up in the underground and canals, the threat of violence and revolt among the men laboring each day in the factories and mines grows more palpable each day.  But one set of murders is stranger than normal.  A whole tram full of corpses found with the tinest of red holes in each body, Hayes is asked to get involved as even the powerful McNaughton executives fear the unknown cause.  More and more corporate secrets uncovered in Hayes’ investigation, the city of Evesden—and the secrets lying beneath it—will never be the same.

The Company Man is a robust piece of entertainment.  Detective noir infused with dieselpunk and sci-fi, Bennett creates a nice blend that opens simple but escalates superbly into an ever-expanding storyline of who or what is behind the happenings.  Hayes is an alcohol drinking, opium smoking anti-hero of self-pitying proportions, but given the tale he’s caught up in, is difficult to outright dismiss given the reader’s desire to know more about the plot and setting.  The novel highly reminiscent of a Robert Charles Wilson offering, Bennett uses solid prose to patiently yet intriguingly build a scene that has the reader looking for answers.  Also like most Wilson stories, The Company Man exists at a distance from reality.  The characters are fairly realistic, but plot and sensawunda take steadier and steadier steps toward the forefront.  (Is it too much to point out that Wilson and Bennett also use three names?)  In short, it is a novel that may not possess much underlying substance, but remains a ripping good read.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Review of Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

With the emergence of any cultural phenomenon, there is the natural, human inclination to develop it as much as possible.  (In the publishing world, ‘develop’ often becomes ‘milk’.)  One of the easiest, most natural, and most obvious iterations is to go extreme—to take to the limit whatever key ingredients made the phenomenon a success to begin with.  Rock-n-roll began innocently enough, but one branch of that tree has become the cavernous, guttural death metal.  Blue jeans were once a workman’s clothing, yet now are a highly commoditized (sometimes shockgun blasted, sometimes acid soaked, sometimes intentionally frayed) article of high fashion.  Thus, when readers and writers of epic fantasy with gritty operatic undertones finally got together and agreed ‘grimdark’ had emerged as a thing, it was only natural that some of the next gen of writers tried to evolve it to the max.  Mark Lawrence’s 2011 The Prince of Thorns is that cavernous, shotgun-blasted extreme.

That intro perhaps longer than my actual ‘review’, The Prince of Thorns is an ambitious work of epic fantasy only in that it attempts to push upon the reader the most malevolent anti-hero possible, which, given the familiarity of everything else in the novel, comes across as a gimmick.  The most violent acts of dishonor and disloyalty committed in the name of daddy issues/victimhood, Lawrence says “Pshaw, so that’s grimdark, eh? I’ll show you G.R.I.M.D.A.R.K.” and throws an uber-Machievellian, sadomasochistic, megalomaniacal teen killer male the reader’s way.  Everything else about the novel rendered in standard epic fantasy form (Medieval-ish setting, sword fights, random bits of magic, monsters, massive battles, yawn…), the novel makes its mark only in that it is essentially a never ending parade of antipathetic scenes.  Little to no character development or emotional depth, bog-standard action scenes, and a whole world of take-that characterize the remainder.  Lawrence’s prose is clean, quite readable, and retains tight focus, but it struggles to keep afloat what seems reaction to the larger epic fantasy cultural phenomenon rather than any story with substance or depth. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review of Glimpses by Lewis Shiner

Despite the centuries that have passed, there remains hope that the final thirty chapters of Cao Xueqin’s manuscript for A Dream of Red Mansions will be found.  Gao E and Cheng Weiyuan made a valiant effort to fill in the missing story, but there remains a notable difference in quality, not to mention perpetual questions whether Gao and Cheng ended the tale as Cao Xueqin would have.  And the same holds true in the rock n’ roll world.  A hungry tape deck, record company restrictions, distraught musicians—all have at one time or another sabotaged or prevented the release of an album or music to the wider world.  But what if it were possible to go back in time and redress the situation?  What if we could return to the era and participate in the actual writing of the novel or making of the music—to read or hear how it was or could have been?  What if we could have unreleased albums like Brian Wilson’s Smile, Neil Young’s Homegrown, or Jimi Hendrix’s First Rays of the New Rising Sun?  Overlaying a powerful personal drama onto this premise in the context of American cultural shifts in the 60s and 80s is Lewis Shiner’s 1993 Glimpses.

A silver lining of sorts, days after his father passes away in a freak diving accident in 1989, Ray Shackleford discovers a lost Beatles track—in his imagination.  “The Long and Winding Road” a track fans are aware of but never heard, Shackleford manages to get a copy recorded on cassette.  He and his father never close, Ray brushes aside the death but can’t brush aside the beautiful bit of Beatles music, and so heads to LA to see a record producer.  Graham Hudson as convinced as Ray as to the power of the track, he agrees to fund The Doors album that never was, Celebration of the Lizard.  Shackleford’s marriage in a downward spiral, he retreats into the history and mythology of Celebration of the Lizard in an attempt to conjure up the album.  Unfortunately, he retreats into alcohol, as well.  Moving from one lost album to another in the aftermath, the beer and marriage problems only get worse, leading to the question: is there any salvation to resurrecting the greatest albums that never were?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review of Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

The five dragons are now four.  In a grand, murderous sweep, the Mackenzie’s have wiped the Corta family from the face of the moon, absorbing their helium-3 business and leaving only a small handful of the family still alive.  Carlos, Rafa, and many other Cortas met their end at the conclusion of Luna: New Moon.  The Mackenzies just players in the game, however, the beginning of Luna: Wolf Moon (2017), second volume in Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy, finds machinations of life on Earth’s largest satellite just as fateful to others.  As the wo—moon—turns…
Lucas, Wagner, Lucasinho, Luna, Ariel, and Robson the only remaining Cortas alive, Luna: Wolf Moon opens precisely where New Moon ended.  McDonald not slowing narrative momentum one bit, Lucas gains his senses in the aftermath of the Mackenzie takeover aboard a Vorontsov ship, his mind set on getting to Earth to start his plan of vengeance.  Lucasinho and Luna find themselves uneasily under the protection of the Asamoahs—a family who may or may not have had their fingers in the downfall of the Cortas.  His mother a Mackenzie, Robson Corta is taken back under the wing of Rachel, his situation more than awkward as the Mackenzies celebrate their takeover.  Wagner, always an outcast, continues to find himself living in the interstices of lunar life, but struggles to remain anonymous as events around him escalate.  And Ariel, the egocentric daughter of Adriana Corta, remains in her wheelchair.  But when political alliances are offered, she finds a new power.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Review of Stargazer's Embassy by Eleanor Lerman

In 2015, Eleanor Lerman’s career in writing took what some might frame as an abrupt left turn: aliens.  Known primarily for her poetry, Lerman had only one novel and two collections of short stories to her name, none of which breached known reality (at least for non-conspiracy thinkers).  With The Radiomen, however, Lerman told the story of an everyday woman who as a child had a strange encounter with an alien through her uncle’s shortwave radio, then developed the scene into a story revolving around religion and self-awareness.  The premise apparently ripe, in 2017 she returns to novel-length fiction about equivocal extra-terrestrials in the human context with Stargazer’s Embassy (Mayapple Press).

Julia is a single, middle-aged cleaning lady living in New York City who seems content with life.  Her mother’s train riding off the track most of the time (she tattooed Julia’s wrist as a child with a strange pattern of stars), her passing leaves Julia with some sense of peace.  But things may just be repressed.  Meeting an older professor of psychology one evening, Julia starts up an unexpected relationship.  And things progress normally, that is, until John reveals that a major portion of his research revolves around experiencers—people who have encountered or been abducted by an alien race dubbed ‘the grays.’  Julia is willing to accept this part of his work, but the tattoo on her wrist won’t.  The star pattern something commonly observed by experiencers, Julia is forced to delve into her mother’s past as well as the rabbit’s hole of her own soul.