Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review of The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts



If there is anything the world never seems to tire of, it’s the murder mystery.  (If it were the US, I would say mass shootings...)  Likely the first form, if not the most basic form of genre, the number of iterations of: figuring out how someone died and apprehending the culprit may just occupy the largest percentage of books, film, and television in the West.  Dabbling in the murder mystery medium in Jack Glass, in 2017 Adam Roberts returns with another pop-sf effort in The Real-Town Murders.  And is it ever slaPdaSh.

More specifically a locked-room mystery (we even have sub-genres of murder), The Real-Town Murders opens with private investigator Alma on the scene of the crime.  An auto-mobile manufactory, she watches the security video of a car being 3D printed from raw materials on the factory floor, guided only by the hands of robots, yet a corpse somehow ending up in the car’s trunk at the end of the process.  The factory’s AI no help, Alma turns to interview the QA employee who found the body, but is quickly cut-off by a high-level government investigator.  Brought to the morgue, Alma is shown the corpse and politely informed she is off the case; the government will take over.  Upon returning home and discovering her data feed has been wiped of all information related to the case, Alma is contacted by a person who claims to have top secret information about the murder.  Meeting the shadowy man at a nearby cafĂ©, it isn’t long before Alma is dragged back into the case—if not just to find out how the murder was done.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review of The Death of Grass by John Christopher



In the decades following the second world war, disaster/catastrophe fiction was something of a thing in British fiction.  From John Wyndham to J.G. Ballard, a variety of scenarios, some more and some less believable, were imagined depicting the human reaction to massive and abrupt social and environmental change.  Wyndham’s falling-star blindness followed by mutant, carnivorous plants that just so happen to prey on the blind is beyond far-fetched, but Ballard’s The Burning World (aka The Drought) remains a realistic look at the psyche in response to mass water shortages—the only real science fictional element in fact being the premise.  Throwing his hat into the catastrophe ring in 1956 was Sam Youd (better known by his pen name, John Christopher) with The Death of Grass (published in the US as No Blade of Grass).  William Golding’s Lord of the Flies meets Ballard’s The Drought, Christopher produced an inconsistent, dramatic, and occasionally thought-provoking fashion story of an England turned upside down by lack of food.

A plot introduction to The Death of Grass is quite a simple affair: a 1950s’ era England deals with the effects of a plant virus that wipes out grain production and causes a major food shortage, in turn throwing the country into chaos.  The tale told through the eyes of one John Custance, the man must take a journey from ravaged London to his brother’s farm in the countryside where a well-protected valley promises safety and provisions for he, his family, and a small handful of hangers-on looking to escape the brutal realities of humanity gone feral. The majority of the novel’s content found in situations where John must make the most dire of decisions and the resulting ethical quandaries, often egged on by his brutal companion Pirri, to elaborate would spoil the story.  Suffice to say Christopher uses tight prose to depict scenes which put humanities’ atavistic and civilized aspects at odds with one another in provocative fashion.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Review of The Humans by Matt Haig



Cute, charming, colorful, feel-good—it’s tough to find a toe-hold to open a review of Matt Haig’s 2013 The Humans.  Just intelligent enough to stray the right side of maudlin, it’s a story that confirms humanity’s foibles in a tried and true fashion, but does so at least with a bit of clever and endearing wit.  And that, I suppose, is where it’s value lies. 

Solving the Riemann hypothesis apparently the key to unlocking humanity’s spread across the universe, an alien race called the Vonnadorians find out that Earthlings are on the verge of discovering the solution and take steps to prevent this by sending one of their own to prevent it.  Killing and taking the form of math professor Andrew Martin, the Vonnadorian arrives on Earth with minimum knowledge and maximum loathing for humans.  He also arrives completely naked, and is forced through a gauntlet of police and newspaper stories to get back to some sense of domestic normalcy.  Cutting right to the chase, “Andrew” kills colleagues and acquaintances who are aware of his research into Riemann’s hypothesis, but slowly, through interaction with his wife, despondent teenage son, mistress, and friends, he learns what it means to be human.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review of The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss



Brian Aldiss, certainly one of the tip-top science fiction writers of all time, passed away a couple weeks ago, and in honor I decided to pull one of my unread Aldiss novels off the shelf and have a go.  No two pieces of Aldiss’ fiction the same, it was impossible to predict what The Malacia Tapestry (1976) would be.  And the cover is zero help.  Unless the reader has read an adept review or two, then it’s very likely the pulp image would entirely misguide them.  But this is Aldiss we’re discussing, and The Malacia Tapestry is much more than Golden Age escapism.  In an interesting twist, Jack Vance might have played a hand, however…

The Malacia Tapestry is about Perian de Chirolo and what is likely the most formative year of his life.  Playboy actor working the stage in the Renassaince-ish, Italian-ish city of Malacia, he lives in poverty yet devotes his life to pleasures—chasing women, bumming a good meal, and getting drunk with equally lascivious friends.  A complete cad, Perian’s life takes a new direction (little to his knowledge) when he agrees to a job acting, rather posing, for scenes in a new type of still-life art created by a renegade inventor/artist named Bergstohn.  Bergstohn part da Vinci and part Wagner, he is a Progressive who has developed a zahnatascope (primitive camera) that he intends to use, under the sponsorship of a wealthy Malacian lord named Hoytola, to create a series of images that will tell a politically dissident story.  Hoytola’s daughter, the beautiful Armida, has likewise agreed to act in the still-life play, and Perian falls madly in love.  Bergstohn having many other subversive plans for Malacia, time will tell the effect on Perian as he is drawn deeper into Armida’s web.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Vegas...



I’m pissed off—again yes, but this time more than usual.  Vegas, and yet another mass shooting in the USA.  Guns are not solely to blame; there are social and cultural issues that also played a role.  But dammit, guns are the main reason.  The guy had mental and social problems, clearly, and the type of free-gun society that exists in the US played right into his hands, along with the hands of the other crazy people who appear about every year or two doing exactly the same thing.  The availability of guns enabled rather than hindered his insane ideas, and there is no arguing around that.

For the record, I’m pro-hunting though I don’t hunt. (Anybody who eats meat or wears leather has no right to be anti-hunting.)  But I am for extremely strong regulations that force every person who wants a gun to go through rigorous testing—physical, psychological, etc.—in order to get a license.  Like the check-in process before getting on an airplane, I trust that the majority of people who use their guns for hunting and target shooting wouldn’t mind subjecting themselves to testing knowing that its ultimate purpose is to weed out the maligned, and would in the end make the US a safer place.  In the legal arena, anything that resembles automatic weaponry, or its accessories, should be prohibited from the market.  Guns should only be sold through official government shops that match gun registration numbers to registered licenses. There should be limits on the number of guns licensed people can own (two or three seems reasonable, unlike this).  And gun manufacturers should be limited in the volumes and types of weapons they are allowed to produce.  Yes, you heard me, no open market on the gun industry.  (Which is more valuable: national GDP or the thousands of people who die each year due to gun violence?)  Stronger regulations would not eliminate gun deaths, but would, if done properly, eventually bring the US into line with the majority of the Western world in terms of gun-death statistics.  

I am American but for the past eight years I have lived in Europe, a continent which is not immune to shootings but for which the frequency and death toll of those events when they occur is exponentially smaller (save Norway, of course).  Guess what, guns are heavily, heavily restricted here.  In Poland where I live the licensing process takes roughly a year, and includes a psychological evaluation, target practice (like a driver’s license test), background search and criminal record evaluation, a written exam, as well as interviews with authorities.  There is no reason why a similar process could not be implemented in the US.  Bad people would still be able to get guns, just like in Poland, but the average crazy guy would not be able to go to his local Walmart and with the flick of a credit card become a mass murderer, which would reduce the number of such instances drastically.

God fucking dammit, almost sixty innocent killed and nearly 600 injured in Vegas, and still the message that GUNS ARE A PROBLEM continues to be ignored where it matters in the US!  It's crazy to me that people will buy more guns after this event, considering there is nothing about owning a gun that could prevented the situation save the lack of guns.

My thoughts go out to the victims of the attack, but most especially the people in the future who will be victims, as, sure as rain it will happen again in a year or two unless something massive changes in gun regulations. Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me 267 times, shame on the government and its politicians for being too weak to overcome the gun lobby and enact better laws that prevent shame...

Monday, October 2, 2017

Console Corner: Review of Horizon: Zero Dawn



While eating breakfast or late in the evening before sleep, I will sometimes watch video game reviews and trailers.  I like to see what’s out there to play, or what’s coming.  But after a while, it all starts to blend together.  Fall Cry, Battle Duty, Destiny Effect, Elder Divinity, Last Walking Dead—there seems an endless progression of scenarios intended to maximize the potential for shooting and stabbing in a world rendered unique by some premise or another.  With more three decades of video games in the rearview, unique has become relative, and coming up with a quality, original IP is very difficult.  But not impossible.  Grounding itself in fundamental gameplay, ensuring the little details are correct, and building off said three decades of wisdom, Guerilla Games’ 2017 Horizon: Zero Dawn delivers a unique world and a quality, enjoyable experience.

But watching the trailers for H:ZD, I initially had doubts.  Fighting robot dinosaurs in a primitive world, how cheesy’ was my first thought.  But after watching some of the gameplay, noticing some of the subtle details and quality of the graphics, learning the storyline was actually post-apocalyptic rather than old-world primitive, and seeing the potential of the combat system, I was intrigued.  When early reviews from across the gaming community all came back positive, I thought why not?  Having now completed the game, why not indeed?

Friday, September 29, 2017

Review of Totalitopia by John Crowley



One of America’s best kept literary secrets (Little, Big may just be the great American novel), John Crowley returns to the printed page in 2017 with what is truly a fan’s collection in Totalitopia.  Reprinting a few shorts stories, two-and-a-half essays (I don’t know whether to call the review of Paul Park’s oeuvre an essay, paper, article, etc.), as well as a new, in-depth author interview, it makes for an excellent sampler platter that includes fiction but likewise goes beyond to offer a behind the scenes look at some of the realities behind said fiction—a fan’s collection.

Looking at the fiction in Totalitopia, “This Is Our Town” is a nostalgic piece, and opens the collection with one man’s reminiscences of his upbringing during America’s Golden Age, particularly his relationship with the Catholic church and how it relates to his present day life.  An open-ended story rather than a definitive view on religion, Crowley uses his subtle powers of prose to ask personal questions that touch upon the larger, social realm.  “Gone” is one Crowley’s most well known and reprinted stories.  A moody, minimalist piece, it is about a woman whose partner has run away with their children on an Earth where a space ship orbits, sending peace-loving Elmer robots do housework and common chores.  A bizarre story for the robot premise, it nevertheless manages to draw strong yet mysterious emotional resonance through the portrayal of the woman’s life.  Proving flash fiction is also in Crowley’s bag of tricks, “In the Tom Mix Museum” is shows the power of excellent writing technique in the process of relaying a vignette of a person’s visit to the museum.  More happening in its three pages than some writers can pack into a story ten times as long, the “story” is interesting as a specimen and as fiction.  What I would call a one-off conceit, “And Go Like This” takes a Buckminster Fuller quote and runs with it.  The entire population of the world migrates to New York City, and answers the question, once there, what to do?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Review of Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? by Robert Sheckley



Stop, stop right here.  Don’t bother with this review.  Just go read a Robert Sheckley novel or collection.  Unless your expectations are so narrow as to want formulaic genre material, the man’s writing cannot disappoint.  The wit, the humor, the wrestling with human nature, all in classic science fictional settings and situations, is inimitable.  Sheckley seeming to forever hover on the fringes of reader awareness, his 1972 collection Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? is as good a place as any to jump right in, wallow in the goodness, and become aware.

Humorous speculation on the nature of machine intelligence, the title story opens the collection.  About an ordinary housewife who one day receives a mail-order robot vacuum cleaner, Sheckley’s keen sense of humor tells a funny ‘romance’ that makes the reader question the possibilities of AI.  An absolutely hilarious story that channels the style of Jack Vance in dialogue but with Sheckley’s cosmopolitan side informing the backstory and plot movement, “Cordle to Onion to Carrot” tells of an easily bullied man who finds his stride among stronger men after imbibing some ‘wine of the gods’.  Just hilarious.  Going from borderline outrageous to quite subdued, “The Petrified World” tells of a man concerned about his dreams.  Visiting a psychologist, his metaphysical questions are unanswerable, save for a procedure that gives him an entirely new perspective on life.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Review of Spindrift by Allen Steele



Allen Steele’s Coyote trilogy was something of a mild surprise for me.  It is not the most literary of science fiction, but that was not Steele’s aim.  Presenting a reasonable scenario wherein humanity colonizes another planet with a cast of characters that hover between 2D and 3D experiencing drama that was not off the charts, it makes for enjoyable enough reading within the hard/soft sf field.  The canvas of the trilogy broad enough to accommodate a variety of spinoffs and even outright continuation of the main storyline, it was likely to no one’s surprise that in 2007 Steele published another novel in the Coyote universe, Spindrift.

A frame story, Spindrift opens with three astronauts, Theodore Harker, Emily Collins, and Jared Ramirez, returning unexpectedly to Earth in a strange space vessel after having disappeared fifty years ago on a space mission nobody knew the fate of.  The mystery of the fifty-year gap explained in the main story, things begin with the USS Galileo, lead by an incompetent but well connected captain, setting off to investigate a strange alien signal eminating from a BDO, nicknamed Spindrift, in a nearby galaxy.  A big secret discovered by Harker, Collins, and Ramirez en route to the BDO—a secret the captain would rather the crew have not known, the open-minded nature of the trip takes a hit, and comes full face upon arrival at Spindrift.  Events spiraling out of control, the mystery of the BDO is answered even as the veil of sentient life in the universe is peeled back.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review of Heroes & Villains by Lewis Shiner



In the introduction to his 2017 collection Heroes and Villains, Lewis Shiner points out that the best length for purely entertaining fiction, whether it be horror, action, spy thriller, etc., is the novella.  And I have to agree.  If you want to relax after a long day and just escape for an hour or two into a complete story that does not tax the brain, a novella can really hit the spot.  Putting his money where his mouth is, Heroes and Villains (2017, Subterranean Press) features three novellas previously published in Subterranean magazine, as well as one original short story.  Representing the more genre-heavy side of Shiner’s fiction, it is a relaxing, escapist collection.

Like the film Valkyrie but with a Houdini twist, “The Black Sun” tells of a group of stage magicians who hatch a plot to take down Hitler.  Playing with the Fuhrer’s belief in the magical, destructive potential for the Spear of Destiny, the group devise an intricate plan, complete with ‘stage effects’.  Near misses abound setting up their plan, when the big day comes all their cards are on the table.  The time and place of Hitler’s real death a historical fact, from the outset the group’s goal would seem to be a failure—or the set up for an alternate history.  Surprisingly, Shiner takes a third option.  To say more would naturally spoil matters, but at least I can say the build up is resolved in organic fashion.  The story backdrop probably could have been expanded a touch (there is a bit of character and setting detail missing, details that normally give a story that full feeling), but the build up and climax make it worthwhile.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Review of Amatka by Karin Tidbeck



Karin Tidbeck arrived on the English language scene around 2012 with several quality short stories collected in Jagganath.  “Sing”, “Reindeer Mountain” and others received a variety of critical attention, primarily for their ethereal fairy-tale qualities that were far more Weird than princesses, knights in shining armor, or majestic castles.  In 2017 Tidbeck makes her English language debut in novel form with Amatka.  A work of dystopian science fiction that feels like a very bland offshoot of Ursula Le Guin and Clifford Simak, I think it’s fair to say Tidbeck’s strengths lie in Jagganath-type material…

Amatka is the story of Vanja.  Marketing researcher for a personal hygiene company, she is asked by her firm to make a cross-continental trip to the industrial city of Amatka to discover brands the shops stock, gaps in the local market, and what the most popular products are among its people.  Amatka a communal society, after filling out the appropriate forms Vanja is provided a room and given free rein to wander the city.  Meeting her roommates, the librarian, and a rebellious older woman named Ula, Vanja slowly becomes aware of skeletons in Amatka’s closet, and begins to ask questions about the rote and routine of society.  Why do the people need to read and repeat the names of solid objects, like a pen or suitcase, for them to retain their shape?  Why does the commune enforce societal parenting?  And why does the recorded history of the poet Erren not quite fit reality?  Needing to take some bold steps to get answers to these questions, Vanja’s life finds a new road by the end of Amatka.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What Comes Next: Questions & Potential Answers Regarding The No-God Duology


In the wake of reading my review of The Unholy Consult, R. Scott Bakker’s concluding volume to the Aspect-Emperor series, a gentleman from the Second Apocalypse forum (the place for discussion on anything Earwa) contacted me privately, asking what I thought of the conclusion to The Unholy Consult and my opinion what might come next—what the follow up and concluding duology, tentatively titled The No-God series, might hold for readers. The more I thought about answers to these questions, the more I realized I should organize them ‘on paper’, and if going that far, why not post them. So, if you haven’t read The Unholy Consult, do not read this post as it will contain major spoilers.  (Another warning, I am writing this with extremely little knowledge of what's happening in forums and other discussions on the Second Apocalypse, so apologies if it seems naive to readers who have invested themselves significantly more than than me into the series.)

Before I dive in, I should note that I read somewhere a while ago (of course I can’t find it now) that all along Bakker had in his mind a solid outline for the series to date, and generally stuck to it throughout the writing, but has only a relatively concrete path before him for the next series. For those not paying attention, this means a few things:

1. The abrupt ending of The Unholy Consult was planned all along, and should be considered as such
2. The bulk of Bakker’s thematic agenda has been delivered
3. Anything that comes next is likely to be more complementary and confirming than revolutionary or game-changing

Therefore, the question is: where to go from the rise of the No-God and the dawn of the Second-Apocalypse?  Before getting into the possibilities, we need to establish three key baselines.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review of The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker



Mao Zedong, Jan Sobieski, George W. Bush—there are innumerable people throughout history who were good at attaining positions of power, and yet seemingly helpless afterwards to maintain that power through good decisions that benefited the society they ruled.  I daresay the same is true for a lot of epic fantasy.  Many authors do a good job building their world and characters as well as instilling dynamics that make the reader want to continue reading, but the closer they get to the ‘grand climax’, the lower the quality of the overarching story becomes.  This has not been a problem for R. Scott Bakker.  The Prince of Nothing trilogy started strong and ended with a bang.  Now, with the publishing of the fourth and final book in The Aspect-Emperor series, The Unholy Consult (2017), Bakker proves no fluke.  Ending with a BANG, it’s a veritable fireworks display that is everything avid readers have been hoping it would be.

Normally I give a brief plot introduction in my reviews, but for The Unholy Consult it seems unnecessary.  For those who have read The Great Ordeal, that is the introduction (and if you haven’t read it, you shouldn’t be reading this review).  Besides, Bakker includes a few pages at the beginning of The Unholy Consult, as he has done with all the series’ books thus far, summarizing events in Earwa. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Review of Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett



When I was young and believed in the Christian god, a few questions nagged at the back of my mind: every religion seems to have its own holy book, its own cosmology, its own sacred rote and routine, and its own unshakable belief it is the One. True. Religion.  How can they all be right?  And isn’t it a bit funny that the majority of people end up believing the religion they were raised closest too—the easy road?  Thankfully these questions, along with the realization of a lot of other logical fallacies, achieved prominence to the point I gave up on Christianity, and organized religion in general.  I can say I am a happier person for it.  But what about the people for whom such mythologies are necessary—existence unthinkable without some religious framework to explain it?  Chris Beckett’s 2016 Daughter of Eden, third in the Eden series, answers this question, and in the process forms the perfect bookend to the original novel, Dark Eden.

More than 200 years have passed since the events of Dark Eden.  Johnfolk, Davidfolk, and Jefffolk have started spreading themselves over the known parts of Eden and established a variety of villages, even a few bigger towns.  At the outset of the novel a woman names Angela is rowing across World Pool to sell goods at a Davidfolk village.  The trip is cut short, however, when she sees in the distance a small fleet of Johnfolk, armed to the teeth, coming across the water.  Returning to her village to raise the alarm, Angela, her family, and fellow villagers flee into the woods in an attempt to escape.  They run and run, until, encountering the most hoped for and yet seemingly unlikely thing that could ever happen on all of Eden.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Review of 2084: The Anthology ed. by George Sandison



I think it’s fair to say George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four is one of the most enduring novels of the 20th century.  Playing off real and perceived fears regarding communist states, there remain a small number of governments exemplifying the tyranny of Big Brother even in the 21st century.  But brainwashing and oppression are not always a grand political scheme orchestrated from the very top.  It likewise exists in other aspects of life, from race to culture, shopping to beauty.  Feeling the time ripe to discover the breadth of ideas the term Orwellian has come to span, George Sandison, editor at Unsung Stories, decided to commission a bevy of writers to produce short stories offering a contemporary perspective on the quiet ways brainwashing, "brainwashing", and oppression might be used, or are currently being used, among us.  2084: The Anthology the result, it is a surprisingly varied anthology of original material that stands out as one of the year’s best.

Gaining momentum with time, the anthology opens a touch slow.  “Babylon” by Dave Hutchinson attempts to present a future European Union as tyrannical for its immigration policies.  Packing too many large ideas into a small story, it tells of a Somalian refugee being smuggled across the Mediterranean and the racial surprise he has planned upon arrival on European soil.  Seeming to run with far-left opinion (ironically the type of faith in media Orwell sought to expose), it does not recognize the effort the EU (not without resistance, natch) has made bringing in refugees and immigrants.  Worse yet, Hutchinson doesn’t play fair when stacking the deck entirely in his favor: the Somali man is without creed or religion, and possesses a cosmopolitan knowledge of language, culture, and James Bond-style counter intelligence, i.e. not very representative of the average Somalian immigrant, just as a European Union bent on preventing all non-white immigrants from entering the continent is likewise not wholly representative…  In something loosely resembling a morlocks/eloi situation, “Here Comes the Flood” by Desirina Boskovich is a bleak future wherein the current capitalist glut has consumed most of the world’s resources, forcing the affluent to live underground. The people living on the surface under the burning sun fight to join them while the people underground fight to keep them out.  Told from a domestic perspective, this dichotomy comes across as very human.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Console Corner: Review of Firewatch



As I mentioned in the intro to why I opened Console Corner—the section of Speculiction devoted to video games, it has been a learning experience discovering what are considered ‘good games’ by people who never left the gaming scene for many years and returned, as I did.  One such game that has received a good amount of positive buzz in the past year or more is Firewatch by Campo Santo.  The internet steering me in the right direction with Witcher 3, Journey, and Inside, I put to the test its Firewatch recommendation.  I’ll take the blame for that one.

Firewatch is a few months in the life of Henry, a middle-aged, middle-class man who has escaped to a Wyoming national park to be a fire warden in the hopes of escaping personal and relationship troubles.  But trouble is waiting.  Stationed at a remote lookout tower, a pair of teens begin setting off fireworks in the dry forest on his first day, requiring Henry to chase them down.  Returning to the tower that evening, he sees a strange man lurking in the trees, and later discovers someone has rifled through his belongings in the tower.  But the strangest thing of all is fellow warden Delilah, a woman stationed at a nearby tower he has contact with only through his radio.  Henry hears her saying things that likely she doesn’t want him hearing…  

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review of Pattern Recognition by William Gibson



While perhaps not the greatest film ever made, Duplicity nevertheless touches upon a premise rarely used: corporate spying.  ‘Corporate’ of course the key word in that term, lots of spying has been done in films, just little of it oriented toward gathering information that can be used to gain some advantage on the market over competitors.  But a company’s undisclosed research data is a concrete entity; it can be stolen, leading to the question: what of the more subjective elements leading to a firm’s success on the market—branding, design, logos, and marketing campaigns?  And what of the underworld below?  William Gibson’s 2003 Pattern Recognition is the novel capturing this idea in a contemporary, corporate world.

Cayce is a ‘coolhunter’.  At some conscious level she is aware of what logos or ideas will be popular and which not, and as such hires out her abilities to various companies, providing recommendations on their latest brand proposals.  Contracted by a marketing consultant named called Blue Ant at the outset of Pattern Recognition, Cayce is asked to evaluate the latest logo designs for a London company.  Once her evaluation is complete, however, her work is not done for Blue Ant.  Brought on full-time by the CEO, a man named Bigend, Cayce is asked to track down the maker of indie films being leaked onto the internet.  The films causing a serious buzz, Bigend gives Cayce an unlimited credit card and sends her off to find the creator.  Where Cayce ends up, however, is anything but the corporate backroom.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Review of Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories by Terry Bisson



There is the NY Times bestseller list, and then there are the numerous high quality writers plugging away in dark corners, producing what is often more considered, more sophisticated material for quieter applause.  Jonathan Carrol, Maureen McHugh, James Morrow, James Blaylock, John Kessel, Caitlin Kiernan, Kij Johnson, Andy Duncan, Rachel Swirsky—these are writers whose names are known by a few, but who will never achieve bestseller lists without lowering the standards for their work.  Terry Bisson is one of these writers, and his first collection Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories (1993) is a great example why.

The collection opening on the title piece, “Bears Discover Fire” is the elegaic story of an uncle, his nephew, and his old-fashioned mother as they sit around a campfire in the woods.  Portraying the end of America’s Golden Age in anything but obvious terms, it’s intriguing to discover the directness of the title even as the story’s message unfolds allegorically.  Wonderful commentary on so-called ‘literary fiction’ and ‘speculative fiction’ by using the creators themselves, “The Two Janets” hits the proverbial nail on the head in identifying the relationship between the two, and does so using the most obvious elements yet combining them in less than obvious fashion.  The collection contains several dialogue-only stories, of which “They're Made Out of Meat” is the first.  Two aliens discussing the finding of a strange species made of meat on a planet called Earth, the pair have an amusing dialogue before a dose of cold, sober reality grounds the story in human perspective.  Likely the most standard (i.e. plot and character driven) piece in the collection, “Over Flat Mountain” tells of a long haul truck driver and the hitchhiker he picks up crossing the recently uplifted Appalachians.  Now eighteen miles in height, the mountains force transport truckers to don air suits and have specific medicines available for low atmosphere.  They also give need to a certain readiness for evolutionary changes brought about by the rise in elevation…

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review of The Twilight Pariah by Jeffrey Ford



The horror genre is so intrinsically limited in scope that the past one hundred+ years of such stories have brought us to the point where the only way to be original is to instill new genre blood (romance, fantasy, etc.).  All other stories have been written, or the interstices are so minimal as to be almost negligible.  This means writers who want to till the same ground must bring their best chops to the table to ensure their oh so familiar material is at least sound in technique, and thus make the reading enjoyable at the surface level.  I believe this is the best way to describe Jeffrey Ford’s 2017 The Twilight Pariah (Tor.com).

A haunted house story, The Twilight Pariah tells of a trio of friends on summer break from university.  Maggie is studying archeology, and convinces the other two, Russell and Henry, to join her on a mini-venture to an abandoned mansion to dig through the outhouse pit in the hopes of finding some antiques that might earn them a little spending money.  The digging needing to be done at night as the three are unsure who has property rights to the mansion, strange sounds accompany their late night excavations, culminating in an unbelievable, otherworldy find at the bottom of the pit.  Wrapping and stuffing it into the trunk of Maggie’s car, the three head back to town, only for stranger things to start happening.  People being murdered in their sleep as the trio seek answers to their find, the sleepy little Midwestern town will never be the same.*

Monday, August 21, 2017

Non-fiction Review of Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding



I grew up in a very rural area.  (Population of my township—not quite town—was 450.)  White collar jobs essentially limited to doctors in the regional hospital, bank execs, and the occasional, lucky entrepreneur (all in the next town over), the majority of people are salt of the earth: laborers, teachers, mechanics, clerks, farmers, housewives, shop owners, the elderly, etc.  And, like so many other small towns (and townships) in the latter part of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, my area is affected by poverty and higher usage of illegal drugs.  A close relative of mine, in fact, died of an overdose recently.  Believing I had an understanding of why, I nevertheless jumped at the chance to read Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town (2009) to find out just how country music, big truck tires, and a low-key sense of howdy could be so affected. 

A mix of case study and research journalism, Methland grounds itself in the empiricism of small town of Oelwein, Iowa, all the while connecting the dots of the town’s meth problem to the larger sectors of pharmaceuticals, criminal law, sociology, and politics.  From the town’s mayor to one of its biggest addicts, the police chief to one of the region’s major dealers, Mexican drug cartels to government legislation, FBI officials to the owner of Oelwein’s most popular watering hole, the key players locally are given space to present their view, even as research into the breadth and history of meth legislation, distribution, manufacture, logistics, drug labs, and other vectors are presented at the local, national and international levels.  In short, Reding cannot be accused of leaving a stone in the arena of methamphetamine abuse, unturned.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review of Moskva by Jack Grimwood



If one reads books long enough, there are certain types of fiction that get old, very quickly.  Adhering too closely to formula and adding nothing with style, some detective novels, for example, wear themselves thin within a few pages.  Seeming to forget that it’s possible to write familiar material in an engaging manner, things like prose, writing between the lines, presentation, making bolder assumptions of reader intelligence, and other elements of more sophisticated fiction get tossed aside in favor of trying to write the latest bestseller.  Thankfully, Jon Courtenay Grimwood does not forget.  His 2016 Moskva (as written by “Jack Grimwood”) is a brilliantly styled murder/espionage story set in Soviet Russia in the 1980s that does nothing new in broad terms, and yet does everything flawlessly at the detail level, resulting in a roughly familiar yet highly engaging novel—the perfect relaxing read. 

Tom Fox is in exile, of sorts.  British intelligence angry at a rash choice he made involving the deaths of others, he has been sent to Moscow on a low-grade assignment to gather information about the influence of religion on the state.  Set in the mid-80s, Soviet power is in effect but on the wane, meaning more government officials are reaching out to attend the social gatherings of the city’s various embassies, including the British.  Meeting one such important Soviet official at a gathering, Fox likewise runs into the daughter of the British ambassador at the same party, a rebellious fifteen-year old named Anna who reminds Fox of his own daughter, now dead.   The teenager turning up missing in the days that follow, Tom is called into the diplomat’s office and his mission quickly changed from information gathering to investigating a missing child.  The trouble for Fox is, the deeper he digs, the deeper the implications for Anna, British-Soviet relations, and even his own life.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review Slade House by David Mitchell



Four years passing between David Mitchell’s 2010 The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and 2014’s The Bone Clocks, it’s fair to say the author took his time working on the latter.  With the 2015 publication of Slade House, it’s also fair to say he had some material on the cutting room floor.

A frame narrative, Slade House tells the story of five people who, in some way or another (usually death), get themselves involved with the mysterious, titular abode and the Anchorites (beings who consume people’s souls to remain young) who live there.  The incidences occurring in a nine-year cycle the Anchorites require to keep the ritual alive, the five people’s stories slowly concatenate into a moment that irrevocably changes the future of Slade House forever.