Saturday, January 26, 2019

Looking forward to in 2019....

I suppose it’s possible to apply the term hey-day, though I would waffle on whether such a relatively positive word can be attached to the glut of books and stories discharging itself from the guts of humanity these days. Indeed, explosion seems a more fitting term describing the unprecedented quantity of fiction available as 2018 turns into 2019. Humanity has never before experienced such a deluge, which means there are going to be too many titles desirable to read yet not enough time. Nevertheless, I will attempt to outline the books I know are coming in 2019 which strike interest of some sort, starting with the many risky books planned.

I believe Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale has entered society’s mindset of being among the tip-top dystopias ever published. Alongside Nineteen Eighty-four, We, and Brave New World, it has become one of the defining bleak thought experiments of the 20th century. With 2019’s The Testament, Atwood will attempt to continue Offred’s tale after the events of A Handmaid’s Tale. Will it be as good, or at least be complementary in quality fashion, one can only hope Atwood thought to publish a sequel after having a knock out idea. Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and The Dragons of Babel form a wonderful, complementary pair. The former the story of young woman trying to find herself in an existence twisted by Swanwick’s quasi-fantasy, quasi-magic-realist pen, and the second the tale of a young man undergoing his own journey of self-discovery through an equally dynamic and colorful setting, it remains to be seen what the upcoming The Iron Dragon’s Mother can add to the pair, or at least the former. Threatening to split up the highly complementary nature of the pair (no husband likes to have an interfering mother-in-law, natch), one can at least hope Swanwick brings to the game an equally prodigious bit of imagination. The third risky book on my list is Tim Powers’ More Walls Broken. Powers seeming to have lost the mojo for the unique ideas he had at the beginning of this career and fallen back on allowing quality prose to propel relatively conventional stories, More Walls Broken doesn’t seem to want to break the trend. About a group of scientists who enter a graveyard to raise the dead, stereotype flags are waving high, and only reading the story will tell whether they are worth heeding.

Review of Brothers of the Head by Brian Aldiss

Siamese-twin pop stars. As of 2019 and the flood of fiction on the market, those words don’t cause anyone to bat an eye; the quest to be unique has pushed any barriers, real or perceived, aside as writers try to capture the last remaining bits of dry ground. But in 1977, undoubtedly it was an eyebrow-raising premise. Aldiss stating that it came to him in a dream, Brothers of the Head (1977) somehow even today can’t help but leave an impression.

It’s the 70s, and in an attempt to push the envelope for pop music, producers in the UK get wind of a pair of Siamese twins looking for life beyond their home on a desolate point of headland in Norfolk, and take a chance. Thus are Tom and Barry (and the third, lifeless head attached to Tom’s shoulder) brought to the big city and taught how to play music and sing. The experiment a success, within a year the pair have a band, The Bang Bang, and a couple hit singles. It’s the reality beyond their success, however, that matters.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Review of 84k by Claire North

I’ve written enough reviews that coming up with an introductory paragraph has become the hardest part. Seemingly all the good ideas taken, setting the stage in a new way is a difficult, sometimes desperate affair. As such, I know how writers of dystopian fiction must feel as of 2018. The lowest hanging as well as the highest hanging fruit all picked, the tree of story premise is bare. Peering behind leaves and feeling around branches for something others may have missed, Claire North’s 84k (2018) takes a look at a near-future England where crime is an economically punitive affair.

Theo Miller works for the Criminal Audit Office. All crime assigned a monetary value, it is his job to analyze and define the financial indemnity the offender owes in compensation to the victim or their family, no jail-time required. Can’t pay your debt, well, off to exploitative community service for you—the patty lines. Corporations valued above all else, white collar offences and offences wherein corporations are victim hold the highest monetary values, while incidents on the street among common folk wield significantly less. Calloused by his work, crime comes to mean little to Theo, that is, until a case appears on his desk involving a former lover. The woman murdered, tallying up the value of her life in numbers touches something inside Theo. When another person from his past appears threatening to blackmail him, however, he has no choice but to dig deeper into the details of the murder. What he finds changes everything for himself, and Britain.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Review of The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne Valente

Whatever you read about Catherynne Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues (2017) beforehand (except this review, natch), ignore it. It’s not superhero fiction. It’s not at heart tragic stories of women being treated poorly by men. It’s not a lot of boo-hooing, woe-is-me, where-is-my-recognition from the ladies who prepared all the feasts in Lord of the Rings. What it is, is vigorous, engrossing, human, and yes, fateful stories of everyday women, with the sugar and confetti of superhero tropes sprinkled over their lives in excellent, metaphorical fashion. (In comic books, the opposite is typically true.) Written in Valente’s vibrant/hilarious/cynical/delightful diction, it’s also a superb set of stories.

The perfect opener, “Paige Embry Is Dead” sets the scene by telling Embry’s disastrous story. A promising research student, Embry makes the mistake of showing off some of her work on volatile metals to her boyfriend, mutating him into Kid Mercury in the process. Evil lurking in the lab’s wings unbeknownst to Embry, her research is cut short by tragedy—one that even Kid Mercury cannot help with. What is likely the best story in the collection, “The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Pauline Ketch” tells the story of a self-destructive person chasing what’s even worse for them. The bad girl riding with the wrong crowd and too proud to think differently, Pauline Ketch is the girl with starry eyes for James Dean on a motorcycle through her version of hell. Valente capturing lightning in a bottle, the character voice in this tale is pitch perfect.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Review of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

More than forty years of age. A couple thousand books read. Hundreds of science fiction novels in my library. And yet, I still had not read Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979). That is, until now.

Arthur Dent awakes one day to find bulldozers outside his front door, waiting to plow his house under to make room for a new freeway. A man named Ford Prefect approaching, he convinces Dent to go out for some fresh air as the world is going to end in five minutes anyway, and that it would be best to spend those five minutes with Prefect as he has an escape route. The prophecy coming true, Dent finds himself aboard a space ship as the Earth disappears in a cloud of dust—the alien Vogons having cleared the planet to make room for a new intergalactic highway. Picaresque the only word to describe it, Dent’s subsequent adventures zipping across the galaxy involve a morose robot, Prefect’s two-headed (and wonderfully named) cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox, and the only other person to survive Earth’s destruction, Tricia McMillan. Let the fun begin!

As one can inherently feel while reading, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is based on a stage production. A tongue-in-cheek, dialogue-based adventure moving from scene to scene, Hitchhiker’s Guide is at times laugh-out-loud funny and always unpredictable. Despite all the years of not having read the book, I now see the appeal (as well as one of Terry Pratchett’s main inspirations). Adams’ sense of humor—from similes to one-liners—is wholly British, and wholly uproarious. Dent a true fish out of water, the opportunities are capitalized upon in wonderful ways.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Best Reads of 2018

Regardless of year published (see here for 2018’s books, specifically), fiction or non-fiction, or novel or collection, the following are the roughly twenty books that stuck out in 2018. In no particular order, they are:

A Fortress in Solitude by Jonathan Lethem – An extraordinary bildungsroman, Lethem takes elements of his own Brooklyn upbringing and melds them into the story of Dylan Ebdus’ growth and development into adulthood. Brooklyn evolving literally under Dylan’s feet, it’s a clash of cultures, race, class, and domestic life with a soft heart that leaves its mark on the reader for its brutal honesty.

Uncommon Miracles by Julie C. Day – A dynamic, wonderful collection of short stories, Day’s deceptively simple hand guides readers through a forest of scarred hope and silver linings. The focus on humanity throughout, themes such as loss, personal paradigm shifts, and domestic issues permeate this superb collection.

The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan – Kiernan’s magnum opus (to date, at least—she is capable of topping herself), she takes the main premise of The Red Tree and develops what was a good book into a great one. Entirely shifting settings, this story of a seemingly schizophrenic woman tossed on the waves of uncertainty and bad decision has all of the fine mystery between allegory and reality a humanist novel could have.

334 by Thomas Disch – A collection of novellas interwoven through a fictional NYC apartment building, what Disch’s near future lacks in terms of action and drama it doubles down on examining the potential effects of technology on the commonalities of urban life, and by extension all humanity. Deceivingly simple, this collection/novel slowly builds momentum into its collage of life that is the final novella.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Review of Newton's Wake by Ken Macleod

Ken Macleod’s entrance onto the science fiction stage was a happy marriage of space opera and futuristic politics. The Fall Revolution a non-linear tetralogy of branching stories and timelines, it kept glancing back at our reality while pushing its unique narrative forward. The follow up, the Engines of Light trilogy, took itself less seriously, dipping into many familiar stereotypes of space fiction. In 2004 Macleod disengaged with series and went the stand-alone route, Newton’s Wake the result. Combining the politics of the Fall Revolution with the tried-n-true space opera fireworks of the Engines of Light, it comes across as a leaner version of an Iain Banks’ novel, which is not bad company.

Lucinda Carlyle and her team of scavengers emerge from a wormhole on the planet Eurydice to investigate anything worth looting. Though encountering a baffling array of technology so advanced as to appear alien, they have no time to investigate, the local (human) militia swooping in and grabbing them. Taken prisoner, Carlyle and her team are brought to the capitol city and learn they are the biggest news the planet has ever had. Despite all of its technical prowess and know-how, the people of Eurydice believed they were the lone survivors of a Singularity event thousands of years prior that supposedly destroyed all humanity. Carlyle and her team proving otherwise, a new light is put upon the alien technology. But things really break wide open when another faction of humanity arrives. No small team of scavengers, a massive ship lands and effectively takes over the planet, that is, unless the local Eurydiceans, and perhaps Lucinda, have something to say about it.

Console Corner: Review of Titanfall 2

In my slow journey back into video games, I’m discovering interesting byways—lesser walked paths of online media—that are proving more valuable for trustworthy, consistent content than the mainstream outlets. As such, games the mainstream media do not cover, or cover poorly, are being brought to my attention—sleepers, future cult classics, and indie hits. Included in this list are good games that, for whatever reason, got the short end of the stick upon release, and therefore did not gain the popularity they deserved. Rarely discussed in the same light as such repetitive titles as Call of Duty, Battlefield, Destiny, etc, is Respawn Entertainment’s 2016 Titanfall 2. Possibly the best first-person shooter ever developed, likely many gamers aren’t aware of it, but should be.

Titanfall 2 is a two mode game: single and multi-player. My internet connection is shit, not to mention I tend to gravitate toward single-player experiences, which means I did not try the multi-player mode. I would say, however, it appears the game was designed to primarily be a multi-player experience, not to mention the single-player impressed me so much that I thought of trying to log in. More later…

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Best of 2018's Books

Due to a variety of issues, 2018 was odd. But I still managed to read twenty books published in the year, and as always missed a number that I wanted to read but for one reason or another, didn’t. Overall in terms of fiction (I mostly read speculative fiction), 2018 was a solid year. Beyond, well... and sigh...

Choosing a best novel up until December was a highly equivocal affair. There were several good, intelligent books to choose from. But none stood out as ‘best’, I am novel, hear me roar. None said “Hey, look at me!” like Exit West last year, or Version Control the previous. I even flirted with the idea of No Award. But again, like 2017, it was the final month which delivered the year’s best.