Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers



Tim Powers is for me a writer whose development is more obvious than a lot of others.  I cringe reading such early efforts as An Epitaph in Rust and The Drawing of the Dark.  One can see a wonderful imagination on the page, but not the talent to execute on a line by line basis.  In The Anubis Gates, On Stranger Tides, and Dinner at Deviant’s Palace a synthesis starts to be seen.  I daresay The Stress of Her Regard (1989) is the transition point from those novels to where we see Powers today, as Last Call and the novels which follow feature the author in his best form.  Thankfully, unique imagination has remained a constant throughout. 

The Stress of Her Regard was Powers’ most ambitious novel to date.  Daring to feature some of the English language’s most renowned poets as primary characters—Bryon, Shelley, and Keats among them—the resulting storyline tells of a British doctor, Michael Crawford, and the bad luck he has while out drinking the night before his wedding.  Accidentally leaving his ring on a statue, he returns the next day to find the object now clenched in a stone fist, unable to be loosened.  All goes well in the wedding, however, that is until the next morning when Crawford awakes to find his new bride’s body mutilated in terrifying fashion beside him.  A whole world of dark horrors slowly unveiling itself in the aftermath, Crawford escapes Britain, but does so into the arms of a creature which would rather have him dead.  Cognizant of the lamia’s true power, he turns to British poets who are traveling the continent for help.  Trouble is, they too are haunted in their own way.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review of Nation by Terry Pratchett



Mythopoeic if there ever was, Terrry Pratchett’s 2008 novel Nation is an Adam and Eve clash of native and western values, with the cream that rises to the top taken to drink.  A wave from a tsunami wave carrying the native Mau and the colonial Daphne to the same beach, slowly the survivors of Mau’s tribe and Daphne’s shipwreck begin appearing onshore, fleshing out the two sides’ differences but forcing them to establish compromises—yes, as only Pratchett can write.  

It should be stated that Nation is not a Discworld novel.  Pratchett sticks to the real world, but given he does nothing to change his style of writing, nevertheless feels very much like a Discworld offering.  Mau, Daphne, or any of the other characters could quite easily appear on the streets of Ankh-Morpork.  Thus for anyone concernd non-Discworld = non-Pratchett, fear not: Nation could not be mistaken for anything but a Pratchett offering.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review of The Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell



David Mitchell’s oeuvre, as relatively small as it it to date, has nevertheless covered a range of plots, settings, and characters.  But fitting in there, sometimes small, sometimes big, always seems the Orient, and most often Japan.  From the Japanese man working in the jazz shop in Ghostwritten to the main character and setting of number9dream, Japan seems to play a role in most of Mitchell’s works.  In 2010’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell turns to the island nation for setting, specifically the Sakoku era, but does so from a majority European perspective.

Believing that accepting a clerk position with the Dutch East Indian Company in Japan for five years will land him the woman he desires once he returns to the Netherlands, Jacob de Zoet reluctantly says goodbye to his homeland and makes the long ocean voyage to the other side of the Earth at the opening of the novel.  The outgoing company steward leaving behind a trail of corruption, de Zoet has been sent along with a strong-minded captain with the mission of setting things right to get commerce flowing with the Japanese on the up and up once again.  Japanese restrictions on European presence in Nagasaki highly intemperate, de Zoet is disappointed to learn that none of his cultural hopes or expectations have any real hope of being fulfilled.  From language to Japanese daily life, all are essentially cut off.  But de Zoet does strike up something of sympathetic relationship with the Japanese translator, and from it meets the local European doctor who is allowed beyond the walls of the stockade, and through that has talks with a woman that may just change his mind about returning to the Netherlands, Miss Aibagawa.  With Dutch power fading in the Orient and English power on the rise, trouble looms in the backdrop, even as de Zoet hacks his way through the rough characters he must work alongside each day.  When an English ship is spotted on the horizon, cannon doors open, trouble starts brewing.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Non-fiction: Review of Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram by Iain Banks



‘Fate’ doesn’t fit.  ‘Marriage made in heaven’, does.  What’s the combo?  Whiskey, Scotland, and Iain Banks, of course.  In other words, publishers finally savvied up; in 2002 they commissioned Banks to write a book of non-fiction—his first and last—about whiskey.  Taking his own path, the result is a travelogue cum history cum taste-test cum ramble about the Scottish national beverage called Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram (2003).

A very loose, heart-on-his-sleeve, Banks-ian approach, Raw Spirit does whiskey justice.  The reader can see the Banks who usually lies between the lines in his novels come front and center. Far from a formal discourse on history or chemistry, pedagogery is limited to a brief review of whiskey’s origins and the distilling process.  After, all the focus is on the merits of individual expressions—the different types of whiskeys—encountered while traveling around Scotland. 

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

And the drop is due to...



The rate of reviewing has dropped off on this site for more than a few of months.  I’m still reading a lot, just not as much as I used to.  And of course there’s a reason.   Actually, there are two.  But first things, first.

A year and a half ago, just before the holidays, my wife’s family asked what we wanted for Christmas.  Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on perspective—I was not asked an opinion on the decision, and instead of requesting something relevant to our ongoing (lifetime?) house renovation, my wife asked for, of all things, a Playstation 4.  What?!?!?, I thought.  We’re in our late thirties.  The last time either of us played video games was university.  We could have a new front door for the price of one of those things! Secretly, of course, I was also aware of what a brain-suck video games can be; like chocolate they are oh so good, and yet oh so bad—bad in the sense that they put to strong test one’s time management and self-control to. not. play. just. one. more. level.  (Despite the decades since last playing, I remain in the court that video games are a positive thing, depending on the game and how the time is spent of course, and I think cognitive science backs this up.)  But Christmas time came, and there sitting under the tree, was a PS4.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Review of The Mindwarpers by Eric Frank Russell



One of the interesting aspects of science fiction is that it is a form sometimes used to criticize science, or more precisely the application of science, rather than glorify it.  From Barry Malzberg to J.G. Ballard, Ray Bradbury to Pat Cadigan, Tom McCarthy to James Morrow—these and other writers in the field have in some way expressed a wariness at technological change and its impact, intended and unintended, on people and society.  The quantity of such fiction dropping since the days vast and quick technological change first threatened, change has almost become the norm.  Getting more outdated with each day, Eric Frank Russell’s 1965 The Mindwarpers is one such book.  Republished as an ebook in 2017 by Dover Publications, the message at its heart, however, transcends time.

Richard Bransome works for one of the most advanced science research laboratories in the country.  Consequently, it is one of the most heavily guarded.  Multiple layers of security prevent unwanted access from the outside, even as the scientists and researchers internally impose their own unwritten code about secrecy in their work, hierarchy, and work ethic.  Bransome is happy in his job, but when people around him start leaving the compound, some even disappearing, things start to get fishy.  Paranoia settling in, Bransome soon finds himself in hiding from people who would like to uncover the secrets of his past as well as scientific work from his present.  Trouble is, are his fears real or imagined?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Review of The Moon and the Other by John Kessel



In the culture wars of the contemporary era, it’s fair to say gender is one of, if not the top subject inciting discussion, criticism, and (inevitably) argument.  From ultra-conservatives to ultra-liberals, the netwaves are awash with facts, opinions, and all manner of material between.  In these wars, it is the blessed privilege of science fiction to actually play out imagined gendered scenarios. From mature efforts like Margaret Atwood’s brilliant The Handmaid’s Tale to less mature (i.e. zeitgeist) works like Naomi Aldeman’s The Power, Suzee McKee Charnas’ challenging Walk to the End of the World to Theodore Sturgeon’s broad-minded Venus Plus X, James Tiptree Jr.’s paranoid yet intelligent ouevre to Aliya Whiteley’s childishly rebellious The Arrival of the Missives, experimenting with gender and gender interrelations has become a sub-genre unto itself—it still can’t compete with military sf or space opera, those bastions of traditionalism, but nevertheless…  Throwing his business card into the gendered sf hat is John Kessel and his matriarchal though male oriented thought experiment, The Moon and the Other (2017). 

Only adding to the idea that sf novels set on the moon currently are in vogue, The Moon and the Other takes advantage of its lunar setting to re-imagine society.  A scattering of colonies and settlements pockmarking the surface, all feature variations of patriarchal societies similar to those we have on Earth, particularly the biggest, richest colony of Perseopolis and Cyrus, it’s leader, who wants to recapture Persian glory of old.  But one colony is organized along different societal lines, the Society of Cousins.  A matriarchal society, men and women mix freely in the society, but men’s rights are limited in terms of child custody, voting, and the ability to organize into groups or political parties.  Men can be scientists, judges, even serve as members of political boards, but are kept in relative isolation as outright male authority and male-only groups are hindered.  Instead, sexual capability, leisurely pursuits, sports, and other non-politically invasive habits are heavily promoted within the male community by the cousins, and as a result, most men take the easy route of pampering and (relative) celebrity.

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.