Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Review of Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald



If you’ve come this far in the series, then there is no need for me to be coy introducing the third and final book in the Everness trilogy, Empress of the Sun (2013).  Picking up precisely where Be My Enemy left off, it’s a well-paced, exciting, and to some degree personal, conclusion that almost, but not quite wraps up the series.

A trend forming, Empress of the Sun sees Everett and the crew of the Everness dropped randomly into yet another parallel world.  Not a planet this time ‘round, however, the crew find themselves on a massive disc capable of containing millions of Earths.  But its inhabitants prove to be anything but human.  A lizard-esque race calling themselves the jiju, the crew have a bizarre run in with one of the them and subsequently get caught up in jiju Darwinian power struggles.  Meanwhile, the Villiers have used the tracking device planted on the Everness to track the airship.  Learning the airship is on the jiju world, they grow pale with fear.  The worlds colliding in spectacular fashion, Everett’s quest to find his lost father grows ever more complicated.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review of The Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley



Formerly a locus of medical science, Edinburgh held one of the world’s leading positions in the area of biology and human anatomy in the early 19th century.  The city one of the first to lift legal restrictions on the usage of corpses for research, arriving at that point was not without a little drama, however.  A couple of enterprising men had moved beyond grave robbing into actively creating their own ‘research material’ in order to earn a few crowns.  Some of the guests at their communal house coming down with strange illnesses, disappearing, or outright dying, they made relatively profitable trade before authorities latched on and put an end to their ‘business venture’.  Set in Edinburgh of the same era and building a darkly fantastical narrative around the infamous Burke & Hare murders is Brian Ruckley’s The Edinburgh Dead (2011).

Once a soldier in the Napoleonic wars and bearing the scars to prove it, Adam Quire is now a sergeant in the Edinburgh police force.  A gruff, stubborn man, he has few friends in the force, and spends most of his time alone on the beat, investigating crimes in the district or trying to stop the rash of grave robberies that have broken out in the city. When a body turns up in a dark alley, murdered savagely, Quire starts to look into the matter, starting with the silver locket he found on the body bearing the name of one John Ruthven.  At the man’s house, Ruthven is polite but cold.  He thanks Quire for returning the locket but is elusive in his answers to questions regarding the identity of the murdered man.  Quire’s detective work turning up a business connection to Ruthven, he has little time to investigate before being attacked one night at his boarding house in the most bizarre fashion.  The attack turning up evidence that even the coroner cannot explain—the supposed expert on dead bodies at that, little does Quire know that he has been sucked into the dark underbelly of Edinburgh’s scientific research…

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review of Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald



Ian McDonald’s Planesrunner, first book in the YA trilogy Everness, was exactly the type of book I wish I had to read as a fourteen year-old.  Parallel worlds, airship battles, shadowy villains, and a strong sense of adventure, McDonald told an entertaining story that clipped along, setting the stage for additional story.  Everett Singh transported to an unknown world in pursuit of his lost father upon the conclusion, the follow up novel Be My Enemy (2012) sees the search continue even as the evil Villiers set the most horrifying person on Everett’s tale: an alter ego version of Everett himself, but with certain physical enhancements…

Be My Enemy thus opens on a confusing scene.  Everett describing strange mechanical abilities in his arms and legs and the dark power they can unleash, the storyline would appear to have jumped the rails: where is the Everret from Planesrunner? Parallel worlds being what they are, however, it isn’t long before the ‘real’ Everett, alongside the spunky Sen in the airship Everness, are once again center stage.  Stranded on a random parallel Earth after having jumped worlds to escape Charlotte Dilliers at the end of Planesrunner, Everett and Sen and the rest of he crew must do everything in their power to find a way back to the Earths they are familiar with, all the while the alter-Everett creeps closer to finding the real Everett and bringing him to the Villiers. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Review of The Games by Ted Kosmatka



Ahh technology, stairway to utopia or spiral into hell—at least such would be the case in a lot of science fiction.  Middle ground so rarely addressed (yes, it is possible the television is both the source of all evil yet a highly informative, useful tool), many an sf novel has utilized one side of this dichotomy to tell its tale.  Genetic engineering its motif, Ted Kosmatka’s 2012 The Games is a downward spiral into hell.  

Silas is a gene constructor.  Not a gene designer (the distinction important), he has been given a genetic blueprint for the latest Olympic gladiator (a biological creation without human DNA to be put into cage combat) and tasked with bringing the creature into existence.  At the start of the story, the latest gladiator design is emerging from a cow womb, and very quickly the constructors and trainers realize they have something extraordinary on their hands.  The gene designer AI rather than human, the Olympic committee and scientists try to get at the optimized logarithms the AI used, a process which proves both fascinating and horrifying.  The monster growing quickly and intelligently, it isn’t long before Silas, and the world, must contend with the gladiator as it comes into its own.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review of The Best of Subterranean ed. by William Schafer



At this point in my life I’ve read enough short stories to realize that the best form they arrive at my door in is the curated anthology.  Anthologies of originals and author collections often hit or miss, curated anthologies allow the editor to cherrypick from stories that have been on the market for some time.  Generally speaking, this means stories that were memorable—for a good reason.  Curated anthologies like Gardner Dozois’ The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction, Gordon van Gelder’s The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: The Fiftieth Anniversary, or Kessel and Kelly’s series for Tachyon, for example, Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, contain numerous good, quality stories that have weathered a bit of time.  William Schafer’s big, fat The Best of Subterranean (2017) is another example in support of my theory. 

Opening the anthology in very strong fashion is Lewis Shiner’s “Perfidia”.  Playing with similar but different ideas to his novel Glimpses, the story tells of a rare music collector named Frank and the seemingly unbelievable find that comes his way.  A music recording dated three days after Glen Miller was officially declared dead, Frank, with the blessing of his drastically ill father, heads to Paris to find the recording’s seller.  The characters and emotion written with Shiner’s deft hand, “Perfidia” is a powerful tale of one man trying to find redemption—the uncertainties surrounding Glen Miller’s mysterious disappearance a great launch pad.  I am torn on Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Game”.  Wonderfully well-written, “Game” tells of a lifelong tiger hunter returning to India in old age for one last hunt.  Dahvana Headley expertly interleaving the hunter’s past with his present, it’s slowly revealed that the hunt may not, in fact, be all that different from those of his younger days, despite the years that have passed.  The story taking a severe left turn upon the climax, readers will either be enthused or disappointed.  I fall on the latter, as I’m unconvinced the left turn actually enhances the story.  Everything (if not more) could have been accomplished had the story been kept ‘realist’.  A very good story, nonetheless.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Review of No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy



At one point in Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, sheriff Tom Bell makes a comparison between the results of a survey issued to teachers in the 1950s and the same survey issued at the turn of the century.  Talking and chewing gum in class and shooting spitballs among the prime offences fifty years ago, they were replaced with rape, suicide, arson, and vandalism in the modern generation.  While the notion an apocalypse is nigh may be extreme, there is no denying the increased prevalence of vice and violence in the years since.  Using the Mexican drug trade as a backdrop, No Country for Old Men highlights this contrast in a story that is the envy of any crime novelist on the market.

Llewelyn Moss is hunting antelope on the empty Texas plains one afternoon when he stumbles across a drug deal gone bad.  Dead bodies and heroin lying everywhere, he finds a briefcase with millions of dollars and heads home.  But his conscience nags at him.  One of the men in the vehicles gasping for air but alive when he left, Moss makes the fateful decision to return in the middle of the night to bring water and see if the man is still alive.  But other dealers have arrived on the scene to hide the mess and recover the goods when Moss arrives.  And he barely escapes.  Forced to leave his truck behind, the dealers have a means of finding his name and address.  Little does Moss know but it is the psychopathic hitman Anton Chigurgh who is put on his trail to recover the money at all costs.  Staying alive, let alone with the money, becomes anything but a foregone conclusion for Moss.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Review of The Cosmic Rape by Theodore Sturgeon



Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 More Than Human explored the possibility of a gestalt human mind in symbolic fashion; an unlikely group of six, each with their own unique powers, come together to form a more capable, collective mind.  The topic interesting (or More Than Human ultimately dissatisfying), Sturgeon returned to the subject in 1958 with The Cosmic Rape (aka To Marry Medusa). In some ways the counter-point to More Than Human, Sturgeon looked at a unified mind, in this case in a galaxy-spanning hive mind, in more human fashion—which made a huge difference, at least for this reviewer.

Though operating on a classic sf premise (an intergalactic alien hive mind seeks to subsume humanity’s minds), The Cosmic Rape is a fully human story.  Though the malcontent Dan Gurlick is linchpin to the novel, his story is interleaved by a handful of characters’ who couldn’t be more diverse.  Guido is a juvenile delinquent who, for reasons he doesn’t understand, hates music and feels the need to destroy it whenever he hears it.  Mentored by a patient policeman, he slowly softens.  Mbala is an African farmer who discovers someone is stealing yams from his garden at night.  Precisely who the culprit is is a surprise, forcing Mbala into a difficult decision.  Sharon is a four-year old girl riding with her family as they move house to a new city.  The family stopping for a break alongside the road, domestic hell breaks loose (Sturgeon does a superb job capturing the mini-dramas of children and parents), and as a result Sharon is accidentally left behind.  Her rescue is entirely unexpected.  Gurlick’s story told in and around these characters’ stories, the reader meets a true malcontent.   Thief, drunk, rapist—it’s the hive mind’s fate to have him as its first contact and first convert on Earth.  Tasking the vile man with gaining the knowledge and materials necessary to infiltrate and take over humanity’s minds, Gurlick is transformed by the alien mind, but not entirely…

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Console Corner: Review of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune



Whether it be koopa troopas (the duck-turtle things from Super Mario Brothers) or the endless robotic hordes of Contra, darknuts (red and blue varieties) from Legend of Zelda or the innocent looking crab things spitting glowing death balls from Sonic the Hedgehog, one constant in video gaming is the endless parade of enemies who. all. look. exactly. the. same.  Better to kill a faceless enemy than one with a wife and three children (George, Sophie, and Martina—as cute as can be).  Thus, to say video games are xenophobic (in terms of content, I mean) would be an understatement.  Having recently completed Naughty Dog’s 2007 action/adventure game Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, I can only say the more things change, the more they remain the same.  Far advanced in graphics, music, story and otherwise beyond the days of Mario Bros., Contra, etc., that parade push of faceless enemies nevertheless continues, en force…

Uncharted opens with Nathan Drake (archeologist/explorer who happens to be good with a gun) dredging up the coffin of his long lost ancestor Sir Francis Drake off the coast of Panama.  The coffin is empty, but it does contain a secret book with enigmatic clues where he hid his treasure before dying (natch).  Pirates attack, and soon enough Drake, his right-hand man Sully, and the feisty reporter Elena are tracking through the jungles of a mysterious island, seeking an idol purportedly made of pure gold as enemies attack from all sides.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Review of Thrawn by Timothy Zahn



I was not a fan of the seventh installment in the Star Wars films, The Force Awakens.  Forced and imitative rather than natural or developmental, its producers and directors were clearly more interested in profits than the integrity of the franchise. Nearly everything about The Force Awakens has its direct analog in the original Star Wars films, and as such failed to push the Star Wars storyline ahead in any organic fashion.*  Not so with Timothy Zahn’s trilogy of novels that followed up the events of The Return of the Jedi.  A natural extension, in Zahn’s trilogy the Empire is waning as the Rebellion is waxing; Luke is rebuilding the Jedi, a new government is being set up along democratic lines, and with the Emperor dead, the dark side is pushed to the background.  There is some cleaning up to do, but overall things are looking brighter for the universe. Thus, the only logical hope the Empire have of getting back into the picture is that a brilliant tactician might be able to do something with what little they have left over.  Enter the blue-skinned, red-eyed alien Grand Admiral Thrawn. 

A very different villain than either the Emperor or Darth Vader, Thrawn used intelligence and rationale as a means to finding advantages, and as the events of Zahn’s trilogy play out, was nearly able to retake power for the Empire once again using just that tool.  In 2017 Zahn returns to the Star Wars universe with the alien’s backstory, simply titled Thrawn.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Review of Railhead by Philip Reeve



I am not a big fan of the past several years’ glut of YA fiction.  Given that adults are the primary consumers, I see it largely as another symptom of the continued dumbing down of culture; “It’s ok, it’s YA” is the reason offered when confronted with what is often very formulaic material.  (And all this is without discussing the glut of YA fiction called ‘adult’ simply because of bad language and/or sex.) This is not to say everyone who reads YA fiction is juvenile, only that it’s a rare sight on the web that an adult reviews a work of YA fiction as such, rather than as any other piece of ‘adult’ fiction they read.  But there remain some really good YA titles on the market—Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials… series, Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, and Diane Wynne Jones glorious Howl’s Moving Castle among them.  Not quite making this list (but almost) is Philip Reeve’s 2015 Railhead.

A ripping boys’ adventure, Railhead is the story of Zen Starlight.  Teenager living on a planet at the end of the line, he spends his days in petty thievery and riding k-trains that travel point-to-point instantaneously across the galaxy.  One day, after stealing a gold necklace from a street vendor, he notices that a girl and her drone are following him.  Giving them the slip at the k-train station, it’s even stranger when they turn up at his house the next day, asking questions.  Thinking they work for the street vendor, Zen flees his house and heads to the fence where he sold the necklace to get it back.  But when the police nab him and demand to know where the girl with the drone is, things get hectic.  Pulled inescapably into an exploit he’d rather have avoided, Zen is quickly in over his head as the shadowy leader of an underground resistance group wants him to commit an extreme crime.