Sunday, December 4, 2016

Review of Simulacron-3 by Daniel Galouye

The ‘brain in a vat’ scenario is a classic thought experiment rooted in inquiries into ontology, materialism, and epistemology. Positing the idea that it’s possible our brains are merely connected to neural stimulators which simulate reality, it asks: how can we know whether we exist in true reality or a simulated reality? While the Matrix trilogy of films is perhaps most famous for exploiting the idea in fictional form, brain-in-a-vat has been a part of science fiction for decades. Putting a dystopian, commercial spin on the concept is Daniel Galouye’s sound 1964 novel Simulacron-3*.

Researchers are hard at work developing a total environment reality simulator called Simulacron-3. Participation in marketing surveys mandatory for the populace, the simulator is intended to replace street corners pollsters who interrupt people’s daily commutes to gather information for companies seeking to better advertize and sell their products. Things take an unexpected turn when one of the simulator’s scientists, Douglas Hall, learns that the lead scientist Hannon Fuller has died under mysterious circumstances. Meeting with Fuller’s family to glean what he can from the dead man’s notes, Hall attempts to continue the research. Exasperating matters is that another scientist vanishes, seemingly into thin air. But when a man emerges from Simulacron-3 VR immersion claiming that Hall’s reality is also simulated, the rabbit hole truly opens, and there’s no looking back.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Review of Savage Season by Joe R. Lansdale

The Lethal Weapon series of films in the 80s and 90s were quite popular. Epitomizing the action-comedy sub-genre, the series relied on the old-standby of a wise-cracking duo caught up in exciting chases and shootouts. While Lethal Weapon remains low-brow Hollywood fluff, the racial dynamics of the starring roles were far less common. Taking the cue from Riggs and Murtaugh, Joe R. Lansdale went about creating his own salt and pepper dynamic duo in 1990’s Savage Season, this time of the blue-collar Texan variety.

An average couple of Joes caught in a money grab gone wrong, Hap and Leonard exude every inch of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. A conscientious objecter during the Vietnam War, when Hap Collins is released from prison, he attempts to start over, and gets employment at a local rose farm in Texas. Meeting the surly Leonard Pine as a result, the two form a friendship based on common interests in martial arts, drinking beers, and taking the piss out of one another. Hap’s ex-wife coming back into his life unexpectedly one day, she brings in tow a get-rich-quick scheme. Hap enlisting the reluctant Leonard, the two join forces with the ex-wife and a pair of leftover hippy idealists, trying to find a cache of money supposedly lost by a group of bank robbers. It isn’t long before the tables start turning, and duo find themselves in over their head.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Review of The Deathbird and Other Stories by Harlan Ellison

There are few writers in speculative fiction who have proven themselves as long-lasting as Harlan Ellison. An award nominated and winning career spanning five decades, the audiobook collection of his ‘best’ stories now stretches to four volumes. Voice from the Edge Volume 4: The Deathbird and Other Stories brings together the renowned stories from the latter phases of the author’s career. Unavoidable, Ellison’s unique narration stands front and center, and, as with the other three volumes in the Edge series, fully complements the original written material.

Autobiographical fantasy, the opening “story” in the collection, called “Ellison Wonderland”, likewise doubles as the collection’s introduction—or at least an imaginative glimpse into the mind (madness?) of a/the writer. Interesting enough (no coincidence intended), the story closing the collection, “How Interesting: A Tiny Man”, also contains strong elements of autobiography. The story tells of a man who creates a 5-inch homunculus for his own pleasure, and the eventual public backlash (predominantly from conservative viewpoints) against the little guy. The tiny man purported to be a product of the devil rather than an individual right to create and own, Ellison, as he has done throughout his career, sets a major component of the establishment in his crosshairs to delightful, and dare I say upon the conclusion, sympathetic effect (*sniffle*).

Monday, November 28, 2016

Review of Version Control by Dexter Palmer

For most of us in the west, the manner in which life is channeled through the internet and the way media and people around us perpetually reinforce the perceived importance of science and technology, are now commonplace.  In tandem with our daily social interaction at work or school, we think nothing of maintaining a wide variety of online profiles/personalities, being social without being physically present, walking in a bubble of headphones, mobile phone or other gadgetry, and, generally speaking, existing at a virtual distance from tangible existence.  On the other end of that line, the related activities are being measured to greater and greater detail, to the point nearly everything we do is quantified in some fashion by somebody, often even ourselves.  Personal as well as Big Data being collected for a variety of purposes, our identities are scattered to social, corporate, consumer, and bureaucratic winds, and reconsolidated in one form or another for a variety of purposes.  Corporeal existence seemingly the last bastion for the idea of self as a whole, even self-perception renders that subjective.  Enter Dexter Palmer’s superb 2016 novel, Version Control. 

Rebecca Wright is an ordinary millennial.  Growing up in suburban New Jersey to a largely normal family, she goes to university, does relatively well, makes meaningful friendships while studying, and graduates believing a career is waiting for her.  Living with her parents while working a wide variety of part-time jobs throughout her 20s, Rebecca is nevertheless able to maintain her bffs from university.  The girls regularly going out for drinking and fun, the dynamic starts to change the older they get.  One by one the friends start relationships that slowly split the group apart, mostly through a dating website called Loveability.  Eventually, Rebecca gives in and creates her own profile.  Meeting the experimental physicist Philip Steiner, things take an unexpected turn in her life.  Phillip older than Rebecca by a few years, and possessing a personality far differently tuned from her own, Rebecca’s grounded, relaxed view contrasts heavily with his purposeful and abstract mindset.  But their marriage is only the beginning of changes in Rebecca’s life.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Review of Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

Perhaps no one was more surprised at the success of 2014’s Europe in Autumn than Dave Hutchinson himself. The novel’s ending what Adam Roberts described as a “knight’s move”, it did, however, give Hutchinson room—a lot of room—to expand the story. Opting for the series route, in 2015 a second novel appeared, Europe at Midnight. Running parallel to Autumn rather than extending its storyline, Hutchinson dug into the new setting presented by the knight’s move, while introducing other players in the game. 2016 sees the release of Europe in Winter (Solaris), the next (and penultimate?) novel in Hutchinson’s Fragmented Europe setting.

Rudi, the central figure of Europe in Autumn, was essentially a non-factor in Europe at Midnight. But he returns in Europe in Winter as the crux. While much of the narrative focuses on new characters and scenes, Rudi’s actions and decisions are the main river into which those tributaries dump their story. In fact, his drive to use the Coureurs to get into the nuts and bolts of the Community is the hinge upon which the novel swings. Perhaps the most plot-heavy novel of the series to date, Rudi’s deeper interest in the Community is triggered by a terrorist event on the Line at the outset of the novel. The Line a railway that is likewise as a polity, its autonomous traverse of the European continent is interrupted by a massive bomb. Not everything as it appears in the clean up, answers to Rudi’s questions are not readily available, and the further he digs, the larger the implications for Europe—fragmented, united, or alternate(d)—become.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Review of Dark Universe by Daniel Galouye

With settings a toe or foot beyond the real world, science fiction is a literature which must often re-balance the elements of story in order to make room for itself. Character depth and rich verisimilitude the usual sacrificial offerings, science fiction can come across as a simplistic literature as a result. Golden Age sf is, indeed, so basic as to be fairy tale-ish. But in other cases, the simplicity can become something more; the author takes advantage of the possibilities inherent to their creation to assign additional levels of significance to its humble surface elements. Daniel Galouye’s Dark Universe (1961), as mythopoeic as the story is at heart, is one such novel. And did I mention setting?

Jared is one of the most daring members of his underground group of survivors. Enjoying his time alone in the pitch black caves and caverns they call home, he is experienced in echo reading and killing soo-bats. Click-stones constantly in hand sounding the way ahead, he tells no one that his real quest in life is not mere survival, but also to find light and darkness—concepts his group discuss only in religious tones. Believing demons of radiation haunt the under and overworld, the elders chastise Jared upon discovering the extent of his explorations, warning him of inhuman monsters in the depths and the dangers of another group of mutant humans called zivvers roaming the caverns. But Jared’s biggest problem may be the social pressure to unify. A girl named Della proposed for him, Jared initially feels the relationship will be unhelpful, a burden hindering his quest. That is, until he discovers more to Della than meets the ear.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Non-Fiction: Review of Sailing Alone around the World by Joshua Slocum

Sailing is one of civilized society’s most romantic endeavors.  Plying the world’s blue waters with nothing but a warm breeze and a sunset on the horizon brings cozy, enviable images to mind.  And sailing alone around the world?  Like scaling the highest peaks or cave diving to the deepest depths, such individual accomplishment appeals to the Western mind.  In the 21st century, world records for sailing solo around the world seem a contest of time (youngest, oldest, fastest, etc.…), but toward the end of the 19th century, apparently nobody of any age had done it.  Accomplishing the feat between 1895 and 1898, Joshua Slocum wrote about his experiences in the mysteriously titled Sailing Alone around the World.

Full of can-do American spirit, in 1895 Joshua Slocum looked to translate his many years of merchant marine experience into a solo sailing experience around the globe.  After refurbishing a 36 foot sloop named the Spray, Slocum set out from Boston for Europe one fine summer day, and never looked back.  Returning to Boston by way of Gibraltar, Buenos Aires, Tierra del Fuego, Samoa, Australia, and Cape Horn, his was a long trip, during which a lot of interesting people were met with, and, as seems natural, the occasional adventure.  (The goat may be the best.)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Review of Kings of Morning by Paul Kearney

Gritty, realistic, violent, pseudo-Spartan—these are the main adjectives characterizing Paul Kearney’s Macht series to date. Plot-driven worldbuilding, The Ten Thousand and Corvus have been prime examples of grimdark without the standard, medieval sword & sorcery fa├žade. The conclusion of Corvus requiring an additional novel, Kings of Morning (2011) completes the trilogy, though not in a manner the reader might assume.

Reversing the tables of The Ten Thousand, Kings of Morning opens in Kufr, and rumors of a massive Macht army approaching, bent on conquer. The situation in Kefran royalty anything but stable, the old king watches his two sons position themselves to kill the other and take his place as next in line, all the while his estranged wife plays political games behind the scenes, maintaining her own realm of power. Corvus, with the hardy Rictus among his generals, does indeed have his sights set on Kufr, and one city after another makes steady progress toward the capital, Ashura. The Kefran king, ignoring his familial troubles, musters the troops in response and rides out for a clash that will decide the kingdom.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review of Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

I am often a visual thinker, and upon completion of the third and final book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X: Southern Reach trilogy called Acceptance, I’m left with the image of a person standing. Annihilation forms one leg and Authority the other, while Acceptance forms the remainder of the body. Another way of saying this is, where Annihilation and Authority are capable of standing alone, Acceptance is built on the two novels, and in turn gives the overall storyline its complete visage.

And I have this image in mind for a few reasons. Annihilation, while flashing back to the Biologist’s life in the real world, was primarily set inside Area X. Authority was the opposite; Control read accounts and saw video of others’ experiences inside the strange region, but his story was set in the real-world, the world outside the physics-defying barrier separating Area X from normality. Acceptance is set in both, as well as stretches the timeframe to the series' max.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review of Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber

There are a lot of ways to get yourself out of a hole. Get a dog, drown yourself in work, take up a new hobby, and if all else fails, become a Christian—ha!, just kidding. (Buy a motorcycle; it will be more fun.) Another common enough approach is writing; keeping a journal is one way to get the funk out. Writing fiction is another. Surely there are many writers who have taken their frustrations with work or marriage out in their stories. But perhaps no one knows the cathartic value of writing better than Fritz Leiber.

The death of his wife, problems with alcohol, and a career not exactly sparkling with new book sales, in the mid-70s Fritz Leiber turned his issues over to the typewriter. Our Lady of Darkness (1977) the result, Leiber put on the page what had been ailing him—not in self-abusing, self-pitying form, rather in a semi-autobiographical, occult quest. What else would a writer of the supernatural do?