Saturday, July 29, 2017

Review of Upon this Rock by David Marusek

Even Adam Smith knew, the market is not kind.  And when you have a market saturated by minimum viable products (i.e. easily accessible, watered down slush), then it’s likely the more subtle, intelligent material for sale will be overlooked.  In short, I thought the market had chewed up and spit out David Marusek years ago.  His stories “The Wedding Album”, Counting Heads, and the like were just too niche, too sophisticated to be appreciated by a wider, paying audience which typically supports writers’ careers.  And then last month in NetGalley I find his return.  More than fifteen years since his last published effort, David Marusek is back with the first in a planned trilogy of science fiction novels: Upon this Rock (2017, Stack of Firewood Press). 

Set on the very edges of civilization in the Alaskan wilderness, Upon this Rock opens at the border of a national park where the park service and a fundamentalist Christian cult are at odds over land ownership.  Poppy Prophecy, tyrannical leader of the cultists, exerts control over every aspect of his family’s lives, from clothes to punishments, daily activities to prayer.  Preaching the apocalypse is nigh, he prepares them for nuclear winter in an abandoned mine that may or may not be on park property.  Jace Kuliak is one of the park rangers caught up in the feud.  A hard-working, pot-smoking young man, he finds himself not as passionate about irritating Poppy’s family as some of his fellow rangers, and is content enjoying the beauty and peace of the park and his daily work.  But one evening both Jace and Poppy witness a strange light in the sky that seems to descend onto the park.  The object eventually found, nothing is the same for the rangers in the aftermath—Poppy’s cult family, Jace, or the world.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers

Tim Powers is for me a writer whose development is more obvious than a lot of others.  I cringe reading such early efforts as An Epitaph in Rust and The Drawing of the Dark.  One can see a wonderful imagination on the page, but not the talent to execute on a line by line basis.  In The Anubis Gates, On Stranger Tides, and Dinner at Deviant’s Palace a synthesis starts to be seen.  I daresay The Stress of Her Regard (1989) is the transition point from those novels to where we see Powers today, as Last Call and the novels which follow feature the author in his best form.  Thankfully, unique imagination has remained a constant throughout. 

The Stress of Her Regard was Powers’ most ambitious novel to date.  Daring to feature some of the English language’s most renowned poets as primary characters—Bryon, Shelley, and Keats among them—the resulting storyline tells of a British doctor, Michael Crawford, and the bad luck he has while out drinking the night before his wedding.  Accidentally leaving his ring on a statue, he returns the next day to find the object now clenched in a stone fist, unable to be loosened.  All goes well in the wedding, however, that is until the next morning when Crawford awakes to find his new bride’s body mutilated in terrifying fashion beside him.  A whole world of dark horrors slowly unveiling itself in the aftermath, Crawford escapes Britain, but does so into the arms of a creature which would rather have him dead.  Cognizant of the lamia’s true power, he turns to British poets who are traveling the continent for help.  Trouble is, they too are haunted in their own way.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review of Nation by Terry Pratchett

Mythopoeic if there ever was, Terrry Pratchett’s 2008 novel Nation is an Adam and Eve clash of native and western values, with the cream that rises to the top taken to drink.  A wave from a tsunami wave carrying the native Mau and the colonial Daphne to the same beach, slowly the survivors of Mau’s tribe and Daphne’s shipwreck begin appearing onshore, fleshing out the two sides’ differences but forcing them to establish compromises—yes, as only Pratchett can write.  

It should be stated that Nation is not a Discworld novel.  Pratchett sticks to the real world, but given he does nothing to change his style of writing, nevertheless feels very much like a Discworld offering.  Mau, Daphne, or any of the other characters could quite easily appear on the streets of Ankh-Morpork.  Thus for anyone concernd non-Discworld = non-Pratchett, fear not: Nation could not be mistaken for anything but a Pratchett offering.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review of The Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s oeuvre, as relatively small as it it to date, has nevertheless covered a range of plots, settings, and characters.  But fitting in there, sometimes small, sometimes big, always seems the Orient, and most often Japan.  From the Japanese man working in the jazz shop in Ghostwritten to the main character and setting of number9dream, Japan seems to play a role in most of Mitchell’s works.  In 2010’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell turns to the island nation for setting, specifically the Sakoku era, but does so from a majority European perspective.

Believing that accepting a clerk position with the Dutch East Indian Company in Japan for five years will land him the woman he desires once he returns to the Netherlands, Jacob de Zoet reluctantly says goodbye to his homeland and makes the long ocean voyage to the other side of the Earth at the opening of the novel.  The outgoing company steward leaving behind a trail of corruption, de Zoet has been sent along with a strong-minded captain with the mission of setting things right to get commerce flowing with the Japanese on the up and up once again.  Japanese restrictions on European presence in Nagasaki highly intemperate, de Zoet is disappointed to learn that none of his cultural hopes or expectations have any real hope of being fulfilled.  From language to Japanese daily life, all are essentially cut off.  But de Zoet does strike up something of sympathetic relationship with the Japanese translator, and from it meets the local European doctor who is allowed beyond the walls of the stockade, and through that has talks with a woman that may just change his mind about returning to the Netherlands, Miss Aibagawa.  With Dutch power fading in the Orient and English power on the rise, trouble looms in the backdrop, even as de Zoet hacks his way through the rough characters he must work alongside each day.  When an English ship is spotted on the horizon, cannon doors open, trouble starts brewing.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Non-fiction: Review of Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram by Iain Banks

‘Fate’ doesn’t fit.  ‘Marriage made in heaven’, does.  What’s the combo?  Whiskey, Scotland, and Iain Banks, of course.  In other words, publishers finally savvied up; in 2002 they commissioned Banks to write a book of non-fiction—his first and last—about whiskey.  Taking his own path, the result is a travelogue cum history cum taste-test cum ramble about the Scottish national beverage called Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram (2003).

A very loose, heart-on-his-sleeve, Banks-ian approach, Raw Spirit does whiskey justice.  The reader can see the Banks who usually lies between the lines in his novels come front and center. Far from a formal discourse on history or chemistry, pedagogery is limited to a brief review of whiskey’s origins and the distilling process.  After, all the focus is on the merits of individual expressions—the different types of whiskeys—encountered while traveling around Scotland. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

And the drop is due to...

The rate of reviewing has dropped off on this site for more than a few of months.  I’m still reading a lot, just not as much as I used to.  And of course there’s a reason.   Actually, there are two.  But first things, first.

A year and a half ago, just before the holidays, my wife’s family asked what we wanted for Christmas.  Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on perspective—I was not asked an opinion on the decision, and instead of requesting something relevant to our ongoing (lifetime?) house renovation, my wife asked for, of all things, a Playstation 4.  What?!?!?, I thought.  We’re in our late thirties.  The last time either of us played video games was university.  We could have a new front door for the price of one of those things! Secretly, of course, I was also aware of what a brain-suck video games can be; like chocolate they are oh so good, and yet oh so bad—bad in the sense that they put to strong test one’s time management and self-control to. not. play. just. one. more. level.  (Despite the decades since last playing, I remain in the court that video games are a positive thing, depending on the game and how the time is spent of course, and I think cognitive science backs this up.)  But Christmas time came, and there sitting under the tree, was a PS4.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Review of The Mindwarpers by Eric Frank Russell

One of the interesting aspects of science fiction is that it is a form sometimes used to criticize science, or more precisely the application of science, rather than glorify it.  From Barry Malzberg to J.G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury to Pat Cadigan, Tom McCarthy to James Morrow—these and other writers in the field have in some way expressed a wariness at technological change and its impact, intended and unintended, on people and society.  The quantity of such fiction dropping since the days vast and quick technological change first threatened, change has almost become the norm.  Getting more outdated with each day, Eric Frank Russell’s 1965 The Mindwarpers is one such book.  Republished as an ebook in 2017 by Dover Publications, the message at its heart, however, transcends time.

Richard Bransome works for one of the most advanced science research laboratories in the country.  Consequently, it is one of the most heavily guarded.  Multiple layers of security prevent unwanted access from the outside, even as the scientists and researchers internally impose their own unwritten code about secrecy in their work, hierarchy, and work ethic.  Bransome is happy in his job, but when people around him start leaving the compound, some even disappearing, things start to get fishy.  Paranoia settling in, Bransome soon finds himself in hiding from people who would like to uncover the secrets of his past as well as scientific work from his present.  Trouble is, are his fears real or imagined?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Review of The Moon and the Other by John Kessel

In the culture wars of the contemporary era, it’s fair to say gender is one of, if not the top subject inciting discussion, criticism, and (inevitably) argument.  From ultra-conservatives to ultra-liberals, the netwaves are awash with facts, opinions, and all manner of material between.  In these wars, it is the blessed privilege of science fiction to actually play out imagined gendered scenarios. From mature efforts like Margaret Atwood’s brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale to less mature (i.e. zeitgeist) works like Naomi Aldeman’s The Power, Suzee McKee Charnas’ challenging Walk to the End of the World to Theodore Sturgeon’s broad-minded Venus Plus X, James Tiptree Jr.’s paranoid yet intelligent ouevre to Aliya Whiteley’s childishly rebellious The Arrival of the Missives, experimenting with gender and gender interrelations has become a sub-genre unto itself—it still can’t compete with military sf or space opera, those bastions of traditionalism, but nevertheless…  Throwing his business card into the gendered sf hat is John Kessel and his matriarchal though male oriented thought experiment, The Moon and the Other (2017). 

Only adding to the idea that sf novels set on the moon currently are in vogue, The Moon and the Other takes advantage of its lunar setting to re-imagine society.  A scattering of colonies and settlements pockmarking the surface, all feature variations of patriarchal societies similar to those we have on Earth, particularly the biggest, richest colony of Perseopolis and Cyrus, it’s leader, who wants to recapture Persian glory of old.  But one colony is organized along different societal lines, the Society of Cousins.  A matriarchal society, men and women mix freely in the society, but men’s rights are limited in terms of child custody, voting, and the ability to organize into groups or political parties.  Men can be scientists, judges, even serve as members of political boards, but are kept in relative isolation as outright male authority and male-only groups are hindered.  Instead, sexual capability, leisurely pursuits, sports, and other non-politically invasive habits are heavily promoted within the male community by the cousins, and as a result, most men take the easy route of pampering and (relative) celebrity.