Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review of The Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley



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

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review of Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald



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

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

Review of The Games by Ted Kosmatka



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

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

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review of The Best of Subterranean ed. by William Schafer



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

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

Review of No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy



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

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

Review of The Cosmic Rape by Theodore Sturgeon



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

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

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Console Corner: Review of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune



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

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

Monday, October 30, 2017

Review of Thrawn by Timothy Zahn



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

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

Friday, October 27, 2017

Review of Railhead by Philip Reeve



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

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

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Review of The Dog Stars by Peter Heller



Ernest Hemingway’s place in the canon of world literature is a contentious matter—at least to me.  While the author of the superb Old Man and the Sea (one of the greats of the American literary scene) and the accidentally great The Sun Also Rises (published at any time other it would have just been another novel), Hemingway is likewise responsible for a number of novels and stories, as well written as they may be, that are little more than operatic tragedies.  Say what you like about the undercurrents of For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, Across the River and Into the Trees, and other of his most famous novels, their primary motifs are standard war drama and romance—motifs that novels like Gone with the Wind had been deploying for decades.  Peter Heller’s implementation of a Hemingway-style narrative in a post-apocalyptic setting, 2012’s The Dog Stars, is no less contentious.

Part of the 1% of the population to survive a massive pandemic, Hig is a former journeyman carpenter now living out his days with a blue heeler named Jasper at a small, abandoned airport at the base of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.  Having set up a protected living space, his only other contacts are an aggressive former Navy Seal named Bangley who shares the airport with him and a group of infected Mennonites living in a nearby valley.  The pilot of a small Cessna, Hig regularly reconnoiters the area with Jasper, looking for scavengers and bandits that would seek to disrupt the relatively peaceful place he and Bangley have made for themselves.  But one day the monotony, coupled with a dramatic event, propel Hig to break the mold and seek the world beyond the airport. 

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.