Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review of Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore

Alternate history is a fairly common element of today’s science fiction scene.  It’s not unusual to read about a novel or encounter a short story that takes some key aspect of history as we know it and flips it on its head.  From the lack of the Black Plague in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt to Michael Chabon’s Jewish habitation of Alaska in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s exploration of a 21-st century Ottoman empire in the Arabesk trilogy to Adam Roberts’ wild, lilliputian Swiftly, the past decade or so has seen a significant number of such stories.  But there was a vanguard—at least if the scattering of stories over several decades can be described as such.  (‘First wave’ sounds just as equivocal…)  One of the key, initial forays into history through an imaginary lens is Ward Moore’s 1953 Bring the Jubilee, which is being released in ebook form by Open Road Media in 2017.

Its Jonbar point the American Civil War, Bring the Jubilee looks into the idea ‘what if the South won’?  The story of Hodge Backmaker, son of a poor farmer in what’s left of the United States of America (essentially the Union), the young man breaks free of his rural home at an early age and heads to New York City—an impoverished metro compared to the grand, lavish cities of the Confederate States of America.  Getting lucky and finding work with a book printer, Hodge spends the next few years of his life learning the trade.  And he learns much more.  The book printer’s essentially a front, namely that of printing propaganda and counterfeiting money, Hodge learns of ongoing secret operations to build a Grand Army and restore the United States to its former glory.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Review of The Asylum of Dr. Caligari by James Morrow

Many films and tv series have featured Hitler’s Third Reich.  And while the clipped ‘stache and heavily-greased forelock are the Fuhrer’s trademarks for personal style, it’s inevitable that a sharply-edged color-scheme of red, white, and black banners and bunting play an equal part in defining the Nazi backdrop.  Hitler not a stupid man, he was aware of the power of art toward helping define an ideology’s image—a visual commonality to abstract concepts.  Going back to the previous world war, James Morrow’s The Asylum of Dr. Caligari (2017, Tachyon) takes a metaphorically satirical look at said power.

It’s 1913 and Francis Wyndham, in a flurry of youthful exuberance, abandons his life in Pennsylvania as a would-be artist and heads to gay Paris, hoping to become apprentice to the great one himself, Picasso. Kicked out the door before he even has a chance to collect his portfolio, Wyndham must switch to plan B.  Given an intriguing offer by another artist, Wyndham heads to Luxembourg through a cloud of impending war in Europe, and the asylum run by the strange Dr. Caligari.  Outbreak imminient, Wyndham settles into his role as the asylum’s master artisan, but not without bits of mystery, including patients who may be more sane than they appear, as well as the twinkle-eyed Dr. Caligari’s own late-night painting projects.  And then the crescendo of war breaks…

Monday, June 19, 2017

Review of Frontera by Lewis Shiner

The transition from the Silver Age of science fiction to the New Age brought with it a change in perspective on mankind’s chances in space.  Where Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and others took a Betty Crocker life in the solar system and beyond as par for the course, Ballard, Malzberg, and other authors had a more jaded view of our prospects.  The 70s saw something of a return to space fervor, but cyberpunk in the 80s once again put a grittily realistic spin on humanity’s relationship to technology, socio-political evolution, and life in space.  A lot of cyberpunk’s focus related to street tech and life, cybernetic enhancements, and data hacking thanks to the success of William Gibson, it’s easy to forget that its aspirations were broader in aim.  Lewis Shiner’s 1984 Frontera, on top of being a debut novel, is a prime example of cyberpunk that does not fit the classic mold in aesthetic terms, yet adheres to its political and human tenets wonderfully.
With the collapse of world government in the face of mega-corporations, society has drastically changed form, and many public programs have fallen by the wayside.  One such program is the terraforming Mars mission—the colonists essentially left on their own by Earth, NASA now disbanded.  But one of the mega-corps, Pulsystems, has caught wind of a new technology that has evolved on Mars, and sends a ship with a few choice personnel, including the strange Kane, to learn more—in secret, if possible.  Arriving planetside, Kane begins spending time among the colonists, digging ever deeper into their strange fabric to learn if any new tech exists, even as his own mind, and what strange things implanted by Pulsystems, threatens to shoot off course.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Review of Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Short review: Biopunk mythopoeia better a novella

Long review: While many genre fans were already aware of Jeff VanderMeer thanks to his years of writing and editing short stories as well as his novel-length works in the Ambergris setting, it was the Area X: Southern Reach trilogy which put VanderMeer’s name on the broader map of fiction.  Almost universally well-received, the three 2014 novels appeared in genre awards lists as well mainstream bestseller lists.  The three written and released in a very short period of time, it’s no surprise VanderMeer took a long break before releasing his next novel, 2017’s Borne.  Trouble is, was it too much time, or too much expectation for the follow-up?

A focused look at two people embedded in a near-future setting twisted Weird by advances in bio-technology, Borne opens with a woman, Rachel, scavenging for survival in a post-Collapse Earth.  Finding a small, blue-green blob-plant creature, she names it Borne and takes it home to her erstwhile companion, Wick.  Wick a drug dealer for the mutant bear overlord named Mord, he brews his bio-narcotics in an abandonded swimming pool.  Wanting to dissect Borne rather than nurture and raise him, Wick believes Borne is one of the many discarded creations of the Company, a biotech corp largely responsible for the ecological Collapse.  But Rachel convinces Wick to let the little creature live, and soon enough, it starts growing and learning.  Thing is, what kind of world is Borne growing up into?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review of The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

Short review: eco-feminist manifesto

Long review: I find myself at odds with the vast majority of the rhetoric in the contemporary political scene.  I shake my head in amazement and fear at many of the statements made by both mega-conservatives and extreme liberals.  I do not think a wall along the Mexican border is an answer to America’s immigration/financial problems, nor do I think gender is fluid, something possible to ignore or forget.  Regarding the latter, I’m mystified by voices which would have us all be pan-sexual—in physical form and in orientation.  Such voices seem to be ignoring key elements of being human, namely that we are first animals, secondly civilized, and that understanding and working with this hierarchy as best we can is the way forward, not pretending it doesn’t exist.  But this is just one of the main reasons Lidia Yuknavitch’s 2017 novel The Book of Joan is so damn intriguing.

Heavily introspective atavism in space, The Book of Joan focuses on the life of Christine, prisoner in a panopticon orbiting Earth.  Earth nearly destroyed by nuclear war, she is sexless, genderless, and has had her skin reduced to a papery white by exposure to radiation.  Watched day-in and day-out by affluent overseers in the station, she awaits her fiftieth birthday, a point at which her body will be recycled for its water.  That day fast approaching, Christine decides to write a chronicle of her experiences on Earth with the despot Jean de Mar, the man who played a strong role in bringing about the nuclear destruction, and Joan, the young woman who opposed him.  Christine tattooing the story on her body, it’s only appropriate the resulting perspective is likewise corporeal.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Review of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Sometimes I’m behind the times, and with Robert Jackson Bennett’s 2014 City of Stairs, for certain I am—or was.  Distrusting the extreme hype upon release, I waited for the novel to settle a little in cultural memory, and in 2017 finally got around to it, (noting, with even more suspicion that the sequel City of Blades did not have the same level of reader response.)  Worth the hype?  Let’s see…

City of Stairs is contemporary epic fantasy, equal parts Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, and China Mieville (on his monster days).  Featuring magic and spells, alternate worlds, and old-world gods, all driven by a classic murder mystery plot, Bennett covers familiar market material while creating a world partially unique—at least unique enough.  He avoids a good vs. evil dichotomy by adding human detail to an occupied city setting, but keeps most of the focus on plot progression, fantastical reveals, numinous objects, military invasions, and a grand climax that is the stuff of classic epic fantasy.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Review of Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Humanity’s written history perpetual for such a time now, fiction set in yesteryear has become an area of writing unto itself—a whole branch of novels and books overlaying stories of their own onto facts as we know them.  And the success of well-written historical fiction is natural; humanity remains as interested in its past as it does its future.  The real challenge for a writer of such novels is to include an agenda relevant to the contemporary world.  Focusing on the history of North America’s forests, interweaving them with the tales of multiple generations of two families, with Barkskins (2016) Annie Proulx proves that historical fiction can be every bit as relevant as contemporary fiction.

Barkskins is the story of two indentured servants, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, and the generations of their families that disperse throughout the centuries that follow—blue collar to white, lumberjack to aristocrat.  Sent by their king in the mid 17th century to cut timber in Nouveau France, the two men arrive together in the same dense, mosquito-infested forest, but quickly move in different directions.  Sel remains on the land, indifferent to the mistreatment by his lord, and clears space for a family and livelihood.  Duquet, on the other hand, escapes servitude and puts into action ideas that will fulfill his dreams of being a man of empire.  Both men’s lives taking unexpected turns toward their respective goals, they live long enough to father children, children who carry on the family names in equally interesting and varied means.  But always the forests remains a part of their lives, even as it dwindles around them.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Review of Passion Play by Sean Stewart

There is very little cyberpunk which brings religion in as a major theme.  Its concerns largely technological, biological, existential, political, post-human, etc., most dystopian corporate futures seem to assume faith and belief-based systems have once and finally been drowned by ‘civilization’.  A peripheral element at best, it’s rare to see Christianity, Buddhism, or any other religion defining the terms on which a cyberpunk novel is written.  (I’m aware there are works like George Alec Effinger’s Maid series which feature Islam heavily, but the religion appears for setting and plot backdrop alone.  Effinger does not go into the meaning of its system in a silicon world.)  This is certainly what makes Sean Stewart’s 1992 novel Passion Play so intriguing - and thankfully re-released in 2017 by Dover Publications.

It is the dark, corporate near-future, and a group of Christian fundamentalists, calling themselves The Redemptionists, have taken political power in the United States.  In the opening chapter, investigator Diane Fletcher is called to the scene of a brutal murder—a woman stabbed to death in her apartment for reasons unclear.  Fletcher a shaper (person who can glean hints of underlying emotion or thought from other people in conversation), she begins investigating the case, and quickly discovers that a local reverend, a radical Redemptionist, took matters into his own hands and elected to kill the woman for the sin of adultery.  With little time to ruminate on the reverend’s honesty, Fletcher packs the man away to prison and inevitable death sentence, and is then called to the scene of another murder, this time the actor Jonathan Mask, a man positioned high in Redemptionist circles.  The murder suspects limited in number, Fletcher begins interviewing them one by one, but ultimately, finds her questions facing in a surprising direction.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Review of The Company Man by Robert Jackson Bennett

Exceptional powers more a burden than a gift, Cyril Hayes—company man to the powerful McNaughton Corporation—lives his corporate agent life in a haze of opium and alcohol.  Able to discern the inner workings of people’s minds if he can spend a couple of hours with them, Hayes uses his talents for the benefit of the Corporation, sniffing out moles and frauds, informants and spies, and always in a back room.  The unions in the metropolis of Evesden growing ever more powerful, Hayes’ investigative work begins to get uglier and uglier.  Dead bodies turning up in the underground and canals, the threat of violence and revolt among the men laboring each day in the factories and mines grows more palpable each day.  But one set of murders is stranger than normal.  A whole tram full of corpses found with the tinest of red holes in each body, Hayes is asked to get involved as even the powerful McNaughton executives fear the unknown cause.  More and more corporate secrets uncovered in Hayes’ investigation, the city of Evesden—and the secrets lying beneath it—will never be the same.

The Company Man is a robust piece of entertainment.  Detective noir infused with dieselpunk and sci-fi, Bennett creates a nice blend that opens simple but escalates superbly into an ever-expanding storyline of who or what is behind the happenings.  Hayes is an alcohol drinking, opium smoking anti-hero of self-pitying proportions, but given the tale he’s caught up in, is difficult to outright dismiss given the reader’s desire to know more about the plot and setting.  The novel highly reminiscent of a Robert Charles Wilson offering, Bennett uses solid prose to patiently yet intriguingly build a scene that has the reader looking for answers.  Also like most Wilson stories, The Company Man exists at a distance from reality.  The characters are fairly realistic, but plot and sensawunda take steadier and steadier steps toward the forefront.  (Is it too much to point out that Wilson and Bennett also use three names?)  In short, it is a novel that may not possess much underlying substance, but remains a ripping good read.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Review of Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

With the emergence of any cultural phenomenon, there is the natural, human inclination to develop it as much as possible.  (In the publishing world, ‘develop’ often becomes ‘milk’.)  One of the easiest, most natural, and most obvious iterations is to go extreme—to take to the limit whatever key ingredients made the phenomenon a success to begin with.  Rock-n-roll began innocently enough, but one branch of that tree has become the cavernous, guttural death metal.  Blue jeans were once a workman’s clothing, yet now are a highly commoditized (sometimes shockgun blasted, sometimes acid soaked, sometimes intentionally frayed) article of high fashion.  Thus, when readers and writers of epic fantasy with gritty operatic undertones finally got together and agreed ‘grimdark’ had emerged as a thing, it was only natural that some of the next gen of writers tried to evolve it to the max.  Mark Lawrence’s 2011 The Prince of Thorns is that cavernous, shotgun-blasted extreme.

That intro perhaps longer than my actual ‘review’, The Prince of Thorns is an ambitious work of epic fantasy only in that it attempts to push upon the reader the most malevolent anti-hero possible, which, given the familiarity of everything else in the novel, comes across as a gimmick.  The most violent acts of dishonor and disloyalty committed in the name of daddy issues/victimhood, Lawrence says “Pshaw, so that’s grimdark, eh? I’ll show you G.R.I.M.D.A.R.K.” and throws an uber-Machievellian, sadomasochistic, megalomaniacal teen killer male the reader’s way.  Everything else about the novel rendered in standard epic fantasy form (Medieval-ish setting, sword fights, random bits of magic, monsters, massive battles, yawn…), the novel makes its mark only in that it is essentially a never ending parade of antipathetic scenes.  Little to no character development or emotional depth, bog-standard action scenes, and a whole world of take-that characterize the remainder.  Lawrence’s prose is clean, quite readable, and retains tight focus, but it struggles to keep afloat what seems reaction to the larger epic fantasy cultural phenomenon rather than any story with substance or depth. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review of Glimpses by Lewis Shiner

Despite the centuries that have passed, there remains hope that the final thirty chapters of Cao Xueqin’s manuscript for A Dream of Red Mansions will be found.  Gao E and Cheng Weiyuan made a valiant effort to fill in the missing story, but there remains a notable difference in quality, not to mention perpetual questions whether Gao and Cheng ended the tale as Cao Xueqin would have.  And the same holds true in the rock n’ roll world.  A hungry tape deck, record company restrictions, distraught musicians—all have at one time or another sabotaged or prevented the release of an album or music to the wider world.  But what if it were possible to go back in time and redress the situation?  What if we could return to the era and participate in the actual writing of the novel or making of the music—to read or hear how it was or could have been?  What if we could have unreleased albums like Brian Wilson’s Smile, Neil Young’s Homegrown, or Jimi Hendrix’s First Rays of the New Rising Sun?  Overlaying a powerful personal drama onto this premise in the context of American cultural shifts in the 60s and 80s is Lewis Shiner’s 1993 Glimpses.

A silver lining of sorts, days after his father passes away in a freak diving accident in 1989, Ray Shackleford discovers a lost Beatles track—in his imagination.  “The Long and Winding Road” a track fans are aware of but never heard, Shackleford manages to get a copy recorded on cassette.  He and his father never close, Ray brushes aside the death but can’t brush aside the beautiful bit of Beatles music, and so heads to LA to see a record producer.  Graham Hudson as convinced as Ray as to the power of the track, he agrees to fund The Doors album that never was, Celebration of the Lizard.  Shackleford’s marriage in a downward spiral, he retreats into the history and mythology of Celebration of the Lizard in an attempt to conjure up the album.  Unfortunately, he retreats into alcohol, as well.  Moving from one lost album to another in the aftermath, the beer and marriage problems only get worse, leading to the question: is there any salvation to resurrecting the greatest albums that never were?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Review of Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

The five dragons are now four.  In a grand, murderous sweep, the Mackenzie’s have wiped the Corta family from the face of the moon, absorbing their helium-3 business and leaving only a small handful of the family still alive.  Carlos, Rafa, and many other Cortas met their end at the conclusion of Luna: New Moon.  The Mackenzies just players in the game, however, the beginning of Luna: Wolf Moon (2017), second volume in Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy, finds machinations of life on Earth’s largest satellite just as fateful to others.  As the wo—moon—turns…
Lucas, Wagner, Lucasinho, Luna, Ariel, and Robson the only remaining Cortas alive, Luna: Wolf Moon opens precisely where New Moon ended.  McDonald not slowing narrative momentum one bit, Lucas gains his senses in the aftermath of the Mackenzie takeover aboard a Vorontsov ship, his mind set on getting to Earth to start his plan of vengeance.  Lucasinho and Luna find themselves uneasily under the protection of the Asamoahs—a family who may or may not have had their fingers in the downfall of the Cortas.  His mother a Mackenzie, Robson Corta is taken back under the wing of Rachel, his situation more than awkward as the Mackenzies celebrate their takeover.  Wagner, always an outcast, continues to find himself living in the interstices of lunar life, but struggles to remain anonymous as events around him escalate.  And Ariel, the egocentric daughter of Adriana Corta, remains in her wheelchair.  But when political alliances are offered, she finds a new power.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Review of Stargazer's Embassy by Eleanor Lerman

In 2015, Eleanor Lerman’s career in writing took what some might frame as an abrupt left turn: aliens.  Known primarily for her poetry, Lerman had only one novel and two collections of short stories to her name, none of which breached known reality (at least for non-conspiracy thinkers).  With The Radiomen, however, Lerman told the story of an everyday woman who as a child had a strange encounter with an alien through her uncle’s shortwave radio, then developed the scene into a story revolving around religion and self-awareness.  The premise apparently ripe, in 2017 she returns to novel-length fiction about equivocal extra-terrestrials in the human context with Stargazer’s Embassy (Mayapple Press).

Julia is a single, middle-aged cleaning lady living in New York City who seems content with life.  Her mother’s train riding off the track most of the time (she tattooed Julia’s wrist as a child with a strange pattern of stars), her passing leaves Julia with some sense of peace.  But things may just be repressed.  Meeting an older professor of psychology one evening, Julia starts up an unexpected relationship.  And things progress normally, that is, until John reveals that a major portion of his research revolves around experiencers—people who have encountered or been abducted by an alien race dubbed ‘the grays.’  Julia is willing to accept this part of his work, but the tattoo on her wrist won’t.  The star pattern something commonly observed by experiencers, Julia is forced to delve into her mother’s past as well as the rabbit’s hole of her own soul.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Review of The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

It’s for certain the case that the deeper an author gets into a setting that the more possibilities and avenues to expand the setting pop up.  For some authors its planned out all along, to extend and explore various storylines and characters through the world they’ve created in a series of stories or novels.  And sometimes it’s unplanned.  Sometimes an author looks back at the world they’ve created and realized something’s missing—a story still needing to be told.  In The Year of the Flood (2009), Margaret Atwood looked back to her earlier novel Oryx and Crake and decided to tell the other side—what was happening in the world beyond the titular pair, what role did in fact God’s Gardeners play in the circumstances that brought about the global pandemic, and what was life like outside the affluent, protected bubble of life in CorpSeCorps?

A parallel sequel rather than a sequential one, The Year of the Flood features storylines occurring at the same time as those of Oryx and Crake.  Unknown whether Atwood planned it all out in advance, Oryx and Crake did end on an open note that left room for, but did not by default require more.  What was added, however, makes the larger story much more immersive.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Review of Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution by Michael R. Underwood

Where fantasy literature was once written as fantasy, no need for pretense, in the contemporary glut of such fiction a self-awareness has appeared (some would say ‘natch’).  An author can no longer write of dragons or princesses without a century’s worth of stories using the same tropes tagging along behind, often in intentionally conspicuous fashion.  Given Michael R. Underwood’s Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution (2015), the glut has reached a point where even the commonality of the tropes themselves can be the subject of fiction.  (Can everybody else see the writing on the wall?)

Leah Tang is a struggling comedian who identifies herself through the fiction she reads, namely mainstream fantasy novels.  Ostracized by jocks while on stage one night, after the show a mysterious bystander makes her an offer seemingly too good to be true: to join a team of genrenauts who make excursions into genre settings, yes, to save the world (the real world, just in case you were confused) from destruction.  Her first assignment Wild West Land, Leah heads off to adventures unknown…  Actually, all too well-known given it is stereotypical wild west...

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review of Explorer by C.J. Cherryh

Inheritor, the concluding volume of C.J. Cherryh’s first Foreigner trilogy, was something of a disappointment, particularly the final sections.  What had been a staid, considered three volume series, in a few moments resolved itself in a flash-bang of prototypical pulp hash, complete with human-alien sex happiness.  Precursor and Defender, the first two novels in the second Foreigner trilogy, likewise lay down a staid, considered storyline, thus raising the question whether the third and concluding volume, Explorer (2003), will follow in the footsteps of Inheritor?  (Spoiler: no.)

Cherryh using the gap between novels to traverse the length (and boredom) of space, Explorer opens with space ship Phoenix arriving in Reunion Station space.  A couple of surprises await.  First is an alien space ship parked quietly to the side.  The second is somehow more surprising.  Communications opened with the Pilot’s Guild on Reunion Station and its general, Braddock, there is an unexplained reluctance to allow Saban, Jace, Bren and the remainder of the Phoenix crew to board Reunion and get the fuel they need to make the return trip to the Atevi home world.  Saban’s tough manner not making things easier with Braddock, the situation quickly escalates when it’s learned that the alien attack that supposedly occurred years before has ongoing repercussions, meaning the Phoenix’s return, let alone survival, is anything but certain.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review of New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2017 novel New York 2140 is something of a return for the author.  Having started his career in fiction with an abstractly connected trilogy of near future science fiction novels depicting a post-apocalypse, dystopia, and ‘utopia’ respectively, often called the Orange County series, he used three very different future histories of Southern California to examine social, economic, environmental, and political issues.  His later novels going to Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and deep space, New York 2140 looks back to the Orange County series for method, moves to the East Coast for setting, and, unsurprisingly, finds that a lot of the issues requiring address in the 80s still require visionary imagination in 2017.

After a decades-spanning series of Pulses, the Earth’s ocean waters have risen 50 feet.  New York City, like the remainder of the world’s coastal urban areas, has found its landscape entirely changed.  Lower Manhattan a gridwork of canals rather than streets as a result, the super-scrapers are now being built in upper rather than lower Manhattan.  Completing the migration, the city’s wealthy and affluent have also moved up-town, leaving the crumbling inter-tidal zone to those who can make life happen. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review of "Proof of Concept" by Gwyneth Jones

“Proof of Concept” by Gwyneth Jones is the story of Kir.  A young woman living on a 23rd century, over-populated Earth with all the encumbent environment and social problems, she has something the majority do not: an AI named Altair living in her head.  A scientist cum reality tv star, Kir gets the chance of a lifetime when she agrees to live deep below the Earth and participate in a project called the Needle, doing her part to research FTL travel.  Seemingly mankind’s only hope to escape the cauldron of pollution and poverty it created on the surface above, things start to get weird when Kir’s colleagues begin dying one by one. 

If that paragraph seems to pack a lot of ideas, indeed Jones’ novella does.  “Proof of Concept” is at times sardine-like.  The story style is dense and blocky, with movement neither smooth or flowing.  Jones immersing the reader without introduction to the 23rd century, it’s an experience to grope through—seemingly with intention, given the parallels to the subjectivity of information in Kir’s world.  (That being said, I have read other of Jones’ short fiction, and it had a similar style.)  Close reading is required.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review of "The Enclave" by Anne Charnock

Anne Charnock’s 2013 novel A Calculated Life was a quiet success.  A human dystopia, Charnock discreetly melded an engaging storyline to material that reflects on the direction the upper class is moving with technology.  No zombies or savage survival to sugar the senses, the main character’s plight traced the suspense inherent to her rather specific circumstances through a personal search for meaning in the protected niches of an affluent city.  Charnock returning to the novel’s setting in 2017, the novella The Enclave addresses a part of the story A Calculated Life briefly touched upon, but through the eyes of new characters wildly different circumstances.

Where A Calculated Life featured the symbiant Jayna and was largely set in an urban environment, The Enclave takes place in the ‘burbs and is told through the lives of a young boy and his overseer.  Not an American, white picket fence suburban existence, the enclaves (as they are called by the locals) are home to the underclass—people who do not want or cannot take advantage of the biological and medical technology available in the city.  Caleb is a boy in the enclave who has been sold into indentured labor to Ma Lexie, a woman whose small crew runs an operation turning trash and recyclables into cheap clothing.  Ma Lexie recognizing his talent, she immediately sets him to work sewing clothes and selling their goods in the market.  Ma Lexie’s treatment of her crew both gentle and rough, Caleb gets an occasional slap for his transgressions, but at the same time has a relative degree of freedom that many other indentured servants, like those he tosses bottle message to from his rooftop hut, don’t.  Big choices eventually placed upon the shoulders of a small boy, Caleb’s time in the enclaves comes to a head: he must decide his future.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review of The Map & the Territory by Michel Houllebecq

One can make some assumptions about the stereotypical ‘high brow French literary novel’.  It will have art and artists.  It will have relationships with sexual issues.  It will have a detached, affected tone remarking mildly on minor revelations while savoring cynicism—as if existence were something strange, something to look at with a raised eyebrow. Stereotypes taking time to cement themselves in cultural mindset, however, Michel Houellebecq’s 2010 novel The Map & the Territory thus comes as something of an anachronistic surprise. 

Clinging to these traditional bulwarks of ‘high brow French literature’, The Map & the Territory sets two artists front and center: one is the fictional Jed Martin, a photographer cum painter who starts small but comes to some success, and the other Houellbecq himself.  Martin falling in love (or something resembling love, that ‘high brow French literary’, distance from existence again…) with the sexy Russian beauty Olga in the early part of his career, the relationship quickly goes south, and Martin finds himself alone.  Perfect opportunity to shift to a new phase in your artistic career you predict?  You would be correct.  Martin goes on to channel his sadness at the doomed relationship (or something like sadness…) into a hugely successful series painting fictional scenes from the lives of contemporary luminaries, scenes like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discuss the Future of Information Technology.  Houellebecq one of the luminaries nominated to have his likeness rendered in oil on canvas, Martin meets the brooding writer, and the two strike up a friendship (or something like a friendship…)  Things get a bit shaken up when Houellebecq is found brutally murdered, meaning the police need to speak to Martin to find out why.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Review of Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

Where o’ where, and how o’ how, I kept asking myself while reading Tom McCarthy’s 2015 Satin Island, is this novel going to tie itself in to its title?  A Joe Anybody corporate guy leading the way, his relatively mundane job, his obsessions with common media headlines, his standard work travel, his quotidian rendezvous with a girlfriend, his attempts to contextualize himself in this mix—nothing seemed related to textiles or archipelagoes.  But in an instant—a homophonic miscollocation—the title coalesced, then recoursed through the novel, making everything clear, or more precisely, clearly unclear. 

Capturing the skew, the kilter of 21st century “reality”, Joe Anybody (who asks the reader to call him U) works for the Company.  His office in the basement among ventilation shafts and blank walls, U is tasked by his motivational speaker cum CEO with the Great Project: to define contemporary anthropology—to unlock the logic underpinning present-day Western social behavior.  Using his formal training as an anthropologist as launch point, U digs into headlines and observes humanity with a strange, detached inititiative.  Even stranger is the positive response he receives from peers and others in business as he travels around the world, presenting his work to date.  Though U himself only distantly feels it, there doesn’t seem full cohesion of his project and the world beyond…

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review of The Great Courses: How Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe

There is a lot of us/them in the science fiction community, the common perception being that the literati draw a line in the sand between genre and literary fiction, no crossing allowed. (For the record, I view mainstream fiction—Lee Child, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, and other popular “realist” writers—as being the same beast as mainstream science fiction. Literary fiction is a different animal.) “They don't review our books.” “They don't put our books on award ballots.” “They don't take our books seriously.” Yes, us/them. What most of the science fiction community doesn't realize (predominantly because they rarely if ever actually read literary fiction) is that literary fiction is not a club intended to keep the riff-raff out. It has a commonly enough agreed definition (see here or Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms), and if looked at closely, does not specifically exclude any genre, let alone science fiction . This is what makes Gary K. Wolfe's The Great Courses: How Great Science Fiction Works so damn bothersome.

One of the introductory quotes in K. Wolfe's lecture series is: “Most of what we'll be discussing in this course is the literary side of science fiction... and what makes for a great science fiction story as opposed to a run-of-the-mill space adventure or monster tale.” Like Aldiss before him, Wolfe then launches into how Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne pioneered early science fiction. Well enough. But then, Wolfe gets into the pulp era, and it's here the aspiration to distinguish “great science fiction” from the “run-of-the-mill” variety begins to trip up. And it only gets worse. By bringing more and more mainstream sf writers into the mix, K. Wolfe stumbles.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Review of Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Time.  Sometimes you just don’t have enough, and others it’s all you’ve got.  The latter is is the situation of the two main characters in Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 debut novel Good Morning, Midnight.  One stranded at an Arctic base and the other stuck on a long space flight from Jupiter, the human mind is given the freedom to conjure the breadth of its available material, to look in closer detail things it might have skipped over in the past, and perhaps, come to some higher sense of self-understanding.

Augustine is an elderly man stuck in the middle of a promise to himself to complete his life’s ambition: a theory of astronomy that will put his name in history books.  Accordingly, he has spent his life living at remote observatories, standing at telescopes and radio arrays, gathering and sifting data, never thinking about a normal life or family, or even colleagues around him.  The beginning of the novel finds him aged seventy-eight at the Barbeau Observatory in the Arctic, when an emergency strikes.  A major cataclysm affecting the world beyond, the Observatory is evacuated by the military.  But Augustine chooses to remain behind to complete his life’s ambition, and in doing so, is forced to reckon with time, solitude, and questions about what kind of person he has been.   

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review of Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley

Glorious, just glorious.  Taxonomizing Robert Sheckley’s 1968 Dimension of Miracles brings me to no different term.   I can think of no other category, no other fiction type, nothing to reduce its cleverness, humor, philosophy, its…  dynamic metaphysicality to a set term.  I fear even writing this review will render it absurd, skew it beyond focus to the point the commentary does not resemble the novel.  Best to start with the salient facts…

Tom Carmody is a winner of a galactic lottery—incorrectly so, but the prize insists he not give up the position.  The prize itself an object of chaos, Carmody is whisked away from Earth on a galactic tour that leaves him not only breathless, but desperate to return home.  Lacking the coordinates of Where, When, and Which, however, sets him on an urgent search—a search that gets even more desperate when Carmody learns a predator of his own creation chases him through the universe.