Another Literary Writer Discovers Speculative Fiction

To quote John Hurt at the end of Spaceballs:

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I’ve written before about “literary” writers who refuse to accept that if they write a book about genetic engineering or post-apocalyptic dystopias or clones that they’re writing science fiction. As much as that honks me off, I can sort of understand it. Artists hate to be pigeonholed (ask Robert Fripp about progressive rock!) and if they’re well known for non-genre works they want to stay in that lane. They’re still wrong, but I get it. Now I’m just trying to figure if I prefer it to sheer ignorance.

Ian McEwan is nothing if not a literary icon – author of more than a dozen novels, one of which, Amsterdam, won the Man Booker Prize while another, Atonement, became an Oscar-winning film. He is literary with a capital “L,” no doubt about it. Now he’s decided come and play in the genre sandbox. Nothing wrong with that – all are welcome! – but he’s being kind of a putz about it.

McEwan’s new book, Machines Like Me, is blurbed like this:

Machines Like Me occurs in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans. With Miranda’s assistance, he co-designs Adam’s personality. This near-perfect human is beautiful, strong and clever – a love triangle soon forms. These three beings will confront a profound moral dilemma. Ian McEwan’s subversive and entertaining new novel poses fundamental questions: what makes us human? Our outward deeds or our inner lives? Could a machine understand the human heart? This provocative and thrilling tale warns of the power to invent things beyond our control.

Machines

Sounds interesting! Alternate history, robots, and warnings about “the power to invent things beyond our control” are all interesting areas for sci-fi to explore. And the cover model looks like he came right off a Kraftwerk album! Problem is, McEwan appears to think he’s the first person to address such topics. From a lengthy (and interesting) interview recently in The Guardian:

McEwan has an abiding faith that novels are the best place to examine such ethical dilemmas, though he has little time for conventional science fiction. ‘There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.’

I’m with McEwan on the power of literature to examine ethical dilemmas inherent in things like artificial intelligence or robotics, but, I mean, science fiction has been dealing with that since almost the beginning. As Gautham Shenoy at Factor Daily puts it:

If nothing, this displays spectacular ignorance on the part of this Booker Prize-winning author because, as far as metaphors go, that is what the novel widely considered to be the first modern science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is about. A fact that becomes all too ironical when McEwan describes Machines Like Me as an ‘anti-Frankenstein novel’. And as far as the larger themes that McEwan claims to tackle in his novel, they could well describe almost the entire body of work of Hollywood’s favourite science fiction author, Philip K. Dick, the fictionalizing philosopher. For the longest time, science fiction has always been about exploring the ‘human dilemma’ as McEwan puts it, and the question of the human-ness of androids has been explored to no end, not least in Annallee Newitz’s Autonomous, in recent times amongst many others. Not to mention that what Mr. McEwan seeks to do now is what a whole phase of science fiction did decades years ago – a movement now referred as the ‘New Wave of SF’ from the 1960/70s which saw science fiction, as a genre, move towards ‘literary merit’ and the ‘softer’ side of science was all about exploring the human condition, typified by scores of science fiction authors including Thomas M. Disch, John Brunner, Joanna Russ, J.G. Ballard, Ursula K. LeGuin, Roger Zelazny, Theodore Sturgeon, Frtiz Liber, Samuel R. Delaney, Brian Aldiss, Michal Moorcock, Alfred Bester, and of course, Philip K. Dick.

McEwan may have a new perspective on the issue of humanity and the machines we create, but it’s presumptuous to think he’s the first person to grapple with those issues in fiction. Shenoy quotes the great Iain (M.) Banks as calling such drop ins by literary folks, claiming to be breaking new ground, as “comically arrogant . . . to fail to do the basic research.” That sounds about right. I mean, how do you know you have something new to say if you don’t know what those who came before you have already said?

I suppose it’s a step forward for a big literary star like McEwan to not hide the ball on playing in the sci-fi sandbox. But on the other hand, it’s at least one step back (if not two) if he thinks he’s the first one whose ever been in there.

Oh, well. At least the book looks “pretty good.”

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Adaptation by Subtraction

One of the reasons novels are so hard to adapt into movies is because there’s just so much in them. Short stories are much easier to completely absorb into a two-hour film, but a book that runs several hundred pages? A real task. Often where filmmakers go wrong is in trying to cram as much of the novel onto the screen as possible, trying to please fans and make sure nothing important gets left out. In truth, that’s about the worst way to attempt an adaptation.

The best adaptations are ones where the filmmakers take the core of the novel and transport it onto the screen, maintaining the feel and ideas of the book, while jettisoning material that gets in the way. Having just read the novel on which it’s based I think the best example of that may be L.A. Confidential.

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Directed by Curtis Hanson, who co-wrote the script along with Brian Helgeland, the film was critical lauded when it was released in 1997. Nominated for nine Oscars it won two, including for the screenplay (it lost best picture to Titanic – not a choice that aged well), which was adapted from the James Ellroy’s 1990 novel of the same name. It’s one of my favorite movies.

The book and movie both follow a trio of cops in 1950s Los Angeles as they try to unravel a conspiracy of corruption among the police, politicians, and wealthy businessmen. The events take place in the wake of “Bloody Christmas,” an actual LAPD prisoner abuse scandal, and are catalyzed by a (fictional, so far as I know) shotgun massacre of six people at a diner called the Nite Owl. Everything comes to a very bloody end.

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The film tells a tight story, hewing close to the Nite Owl killing as the driving force and covering only a few days. The cops – Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe), and Jack Vincennes (he who shall not be named) – each take their own paths to the truth, which is far from convenient for any of them. They boil down into fictional cop archetypes – the by-the-book choir boy who has to get his hands dirty (Exley), the thug who wants to be more cerebral (Bud), and the glib hustler enamored with Hollywood glitz and scandal (Jack). As someone else wrote a long time ago, Exley and Bud make one good cop between them.

The book, by contrast, spreads out over several years (with huge time jumps pretty clumsily handled) and adds to the Nite Owl a huge, sprawling murder case that involves torture porn and not one but two serial killers! I’m probably biased from having come to the film first, but this part of the book didn’t work that well for me, as it was so over the top it sacrificed some verisimilitude for spectacle. It is also dark as fuck, full of language that wouldn’t pass any modern PC filter.

What’s amazing is that for leaving out all that stuff the movie still basically ends in the same place in terms of theme. Exley learns that sometimes rules have to be bent to deal with real evil (the lesson of every good fictional cop and, sadly, way too many real life ones), while Bud does his best to rise above his brutality, but winds up reverting to type in the end. Jack winds up dead in both tellings, although for very different reasons.

What the book does that no movie can touch is get us much deeper into the heads of the three cops around whom the story revolves. Bud in the book is basically Bud from the movie, but the other two get backstories that really sharpen their characters. As in the movie, Exley is a war hero, but in the book we learn he’s also a fraud – he framed the aftermath of an act of cowardice to look like bravery. The relationship with his father – an ex-cop turned real estate developer – also gets a lot of development and helps explain why Exley is who he is. The Jack of the book gets a lot more development, including a tragic fuck up in his past and a love interest that gives him more of a potential redemption arc.

Which is to say some things are lost in the adaptation, but not much. For the most part, Hanson and Helgeland got it right on what to cut and what to emphasize. But don’t take my word for it:

Ellroy approved: ‘They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes. The script is very much about the [characters’] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I’ve long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.’

That puts Ellroy in a pretty limited company of authors who are fans of the movies based on their works. Like I said – sometimes it’s not about what’s left in, but what’s left out that makes an adaptation successful.

Whither West Virginia?

Writing alternate history is a tricky business. There’s a long way between weed-fueled gab sessions about what would have happened if the American Revolution failed or whatever and writing a story in a believable world that’s diverged from our own in a particular way. Who can really tell what that one change will make?

The conceit of Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines is pretty intriguing: Abraham Lincoln is assassinated just prior to his first inauguration, rather than at the end of the Civil War. That leads to the “Crittenden Compromise,” a group of amendments to the Constitution that permanently protects slavery. Over the years several states emancipate, so that by the time the book takes place in the “modern” era slavery still exists in the “hard four” – Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Carolinas (united for reasons never explained).

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The story itself involves Victor, a runaway slave who becomes an undercover bounty hunter for the US Marshals tracking down other runaways. That means infiltrating the modern equivalent of the Underground Railroad, which is still trying to shuttle escaped slaves to Canada. It’s told entirely from his point of view, which gets deep down into his head as he deals with issues of guilt, anger, cynicism and a bunch else. It’s a pretty good character study that loses its feet a little bit when the narrative heads south (literally) and concludes with some of those twists you don’t see coming that characterize detective stories.

Naturally, most of the world we see is through Victor’s eyes and there are some interesting nuggets about what a 21st-century United States with slavery looks like (spoiler – it’s not a non-racist utopia in the rest of the country), but for the most part it looks like history mostly marched on as we know it. There were, apparently, two world wars, for example (FDR used arms manufacturing contracts as a carrot to get a couple of states to abolish slavery), which doesn’t necessarily make sense, but it’s not necessarily wrong either.

On the other hand, there are some things that maybe don’t quite make sense in a world where the United States never abolished slavery and avoided the Civil War. Would a nation isolated by the rest of the world played any role, much less the same one, in the world wars? Winters gives us a Vietnam analog with a failed attempt by Texas to secede in the 1960s, presumably in recognition of the fact that the Cold War probably doesn’t happen. In her review of the book at Tor, Alex Brown writes:

]The details are extraordinary, although some of the larger questions are left untouched. The biggest omission for me was the lack of world building in the West. Outside a couple of references to Texas, the entire western half of the US is never even mentioned, yet in the real world slavery had a huge impact on the West (says the woman who wrote her MA US History thesis on Black life in the West). Southerners traveling overland often sold some of their slaves to finance their journey. Those left behind were devastated by broken homes, and after the Civil War thousands of freed slaves took out ads looking for their families; most were never reunited. Countless slaves worked in the gold mines, cattle ranches, and citrus orchards in California in the 1840s and 1850s, while even more were cowboys on the plains. Dozens of Black-founded towns are scattered across the West, and, of course, one of the worst race riots in American history took place in Tulsa in 1921. Alt-history or no, you don’t get the modern United States—including its scientific advancements and racism—without the development of the West, and you don’t get the West without Black people.

Which is what makes me wonder about West Virginia in the world Winters created. Here’s a map (helpfully available online and in the front of the ebook preview for those of us who absorbed the audiobook) of the United States of Underground Airlines:

UndergroundMap

As you can see, West Virginia is there, just like it is in the real world. The problem is that West Virginia was literally born in the Civil War. Given the timeline for the book Lincoln was killed before  Virginia voted to secede, which prompted the crisis that eventually spawned West Virginia. Without that, there’d be no West Virginia. That’s not to say there weren’t divides between the folks living west of the mountains and the Tidewater plantation owners that dominated antebellum Virginia politics – there was a pretty good reason to spin the western part of the state off on its own. But given how difficult it is to carve a new state from an existing one, it’s unlikely it ever would have happened but for the breach that was the Civil War.

None of that has anything to do with the story Underground Airlines is telling, of course, but it is an example of how alternate history worlds sometimes raise questions in the peripheral vision that will catch the attention of a few readers, but blow by most. I’m not sure what that means in the long run, but this West Virginian is ready to “repeat to yourself that it’s just a [book], you should really just relax” and just enjoy.

Weekly Read – The Great War

Ever just fall down a rabbit hole and disappear into a topic for a while? For the past couple of months I’ve been reading nothing but books on the First World War. I hadn’t been driven to do so during the 100th anniversary observances over the past few years, so what dragged me in? Would you believe me if I said it was an interest in genre fiction?

Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror is exactly what it sounds like – an exploration of how men (mostly) who fought in World War I impacted the development of horror, particularly in the nascent motion picture industry.

Wasteland

Many of the early classic horror films – from Nosferatu through Bride of Frankenstein – have connections that date back to the carnage of World War I. Wasteland does a good job of surveying the various developments in the arts as people began to process the industrial scale of death that the war brought, different in orders of magnitude from anything before. Plus, I had no idea Salvador Dali was such an asshole!

Reading Wasteland made me realize that, aside from some broad brush strokes I picked up in school, I really didn’t know much about World War I, so I decided to dive into some of the history of it. Where better to start than the beginning, right?

On June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist name Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (and his wife), heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Most people know that as the “start” of the war, but the truth is much more complex (and interesting). In fact it was a month before hostilities broke out, a month during which diplomatic wheels were constantly in motion. That month, the “July Crisis,” is the focus of July 1914: Countdown to War, which exhaustively covers the debates, maneuverings, and petty squabbles of parties all over Europe as the continent slouched towards war.

Coutdown

What was most amazing to me (aside from the fact that in a large number of states a hereditary autocrat was actually in charge – 100 year ago!) is how little emotional investment the various players had in Ferdinand’s death. Certain his own father didn’t seem all the broken up, as did most of the power brokers in Austria-Hungary, who saw him as a potential reformer and were happy to be rid of him. Only German Kaiser Wilhelm really seemed broken up about it. So what Ferdinand’s death just a cynical crisis used to give everybody an excuse to go to war? No, the roots of the war date back into the 19th century (who knew the integrity of an independent Belgium was so important?), but what is clear is that everybody involved had a plan if war was coming and once they committed to them, the die was pretty much cast.

Moving on from the start of the war, my next read was A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918.

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Rather than getting bogged down in the details of a particular battle of campaign, the book provides a swift (if lengthy) overview of the war on all fronts. Sometimes it’s a little too much overview. For example, the chapter on Gallipoli mentions how a British force could have taken advantage of something had it moved quickly, but it took four weeks – we never learn why. Unfortunately for me, it spends the first section (of six) on the July Crisis, so it was a little redundant for me. More disappointing, it didn’t deal in similar detail with what happened after the war and during the various peace talks. In between, though, it’s a depressingly fascinating catalog of the various failures of the parties to figure out something to do other than grind millions of people through useless battle after useless battle. You’d think, for example, that generals and politicians could put aside petty personal differences in the face of existential threats to their country (one of the interesting recurring themes is how the propaganda of the war made pursuing peace settlements hard – who wants to make peace with the devil?), but, alas, people are people, even in the middle of the Great War.

Since A World Undone didn’t touch much on what happened after the war I decided that I needed one more book to finish things up. Rather than dive into a book about the peace conferences and treaties (of which the Treaty of Versailles was just one) I went with The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End. Provocative title, no?

Vanquished

The point of The Vanquished is that the war destabilized Europe and the Middle East to such an extent that the “peace” actually constituted a lot of revolutionary violence and civil wars. Most of it was in Eastern Europe (don’t forget that Russia got out of the war once the czar was deposed) and the places that had been carved out of the late Ottoman Empire like new-fangled countries Iraq and Jordan. Of course, Germany didn’t escape unscathed by all this, setting the stage for the rise of Hitler. Even countries on the winning side, like Italy, fell to popular revolution.

On the one hand he First World War wrought huge changes in the world. It swept away the last vestiges of most European monarchies, at least as the people who actually ran their countries. It launched the United States into place as a major international player. And, technologically, it introduced a host or horrible things to modern warfare. But, in a lot of ways, it didn’t change much. Or, more accurately, it left so much unresolved that the Second World War was almost inevitable.

I’ve got a better handle on that now, thanks to all this reading. I can’t say it restored any of my faith in humanity, though. I recommend all these books – but maybe not to read all in one go.

One Man’s Second Book Problem . . .

One person’s trash is another’s treasure, as the saying goes. I think the literary version of that might be that one person’s second book problem is another person’s interesting, deep dive into character lives.

Remember last year when I blogged about the second book problem – the tendency for middle books in trilogies to sag a little bit given their place in the middle of the overall narrative? At the time I was laboring under the assumption that most people would agree on when second books were problematic or not. A recent experience has convinced me otherwise.

A Gathering of Shadows is the second book in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy.

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It’s set in a kind of alternate history world during the 19th century where there are actually four Londons existing in parallel worlds with different levels of magic (ours is “grey” London, which about sums up the magical nature of it). The first book in the series, A Darker Shade of Magic, has a lot of hopping between worlds as it spirals towards a universe-altering conclusion.

The second book, by contrast, is a lot more sedate. It takes place mostly in red London, where magic is like air and just about everybody makes use of it in some way or another. A kind of World Cup of magic called the Element Games brings together the two main characters, Kel and Lilah, who were separated at the end of book one. We get deep into the tournament and what it means politically in the world of red London. All the while, occasionally, we pop over to black London (where a magical incident years before basically turned it into a burned over hellscape) and see that something bigger is brewing.

To be honest, the brewing seemed like it was part of another book. I was really grooving on the tournament, the way it allowed us to get more into the heads of Lilah and Kel (and his brother, Rhyl), not to mention a couple of new characters. It seemed like the perfect use of a second book, to deepen both the world in which the story takes place and the people in it whom we are supposed to care about. Then the tournament wraps up a little early and the black London stuff comes crashing down on our heroes. It all happens so fast that I think it would have worked better as an expanded second part of the book or as a short, brutal epilogue to setup the final book in the series. Still, overall, a good read and I’m definitely on board for the conclusion of the trilogy.

And, don’t get me wrong, lots of people love this book (and the series). But there were more than a few super pissed fans of the first book who thought A Gathering of Shadows was just boring filler – until the very end, when the black London stuff comes calling. In other words, they felt just the opposite of the way I did about it (one reader said it was “is majorly afflicted with the infamous 2nd book syndrome”). One person even suggested that all the important things that happen in this book could be collapsed into the first chapter of the final volume of the trilogy.

Are those folks wrong? Yes and no. I think they’re wrong because books (or stories of any kind) do more than simply push the major plot along and there’s a lot of other stuff going on for most of A Gathering of Shadows, stuff that I happen to enjoy (a lot of books, beginnings of them, get described as “slow,” but I love the time spent settling into a place or getting to know characters). On the other hand, it isn’t wrong to say that by the end of A Gathering of Shadows not a lot has happened on the grand “fate of the worlds” scale on which the first book operated. I can understand the frustration, even if I don’t share it.

While this is another in a long line of examples of why all are is personal, it’s also an example of people wanting different things from extended works. A trilogy or series, by definition, invites readers in and lets them spend more time in a world than a single story. It’s not surprising that a writer might take that time to do things other than move the plot along. But it’s also no surprise that fans brought back to the world by a quick-paced first book might find a second one slow if it can’t match that pace.

Neither set of readers is wrong in their expectations (or their permissions), but neither is a writer “wrong” for taking one path over the other. It’s worth thinking about what people said about the first book before deciding to slow things down in the second. Maybe that’s the best way to tell the entire story you mean to tell, or maybe it’s a second-book trap you’re falling into. As with most things about writing, a little forethought can head off some disappointment down the road.

Weekly Read: 1632

I’ve never had so much to say about a book I decided not to finish.

I’d had 1632 on my “to read” list for quite a while. For one thing, it’s got a hell of a setup, an elevator pitch for the ages (more of that later). For another, the way author Eric Flint has let in other authors, and even fans, to help build and flesh out the world he created is a really interesting phenomenon. With that said, the book is clearly not for me, as I could only make it about a quarter of the way through before throwing in the towel.

As for that pitch – Begin with the fictional small town of Grantville, West Virginia, where a wedding reception is underway at the local high school. There is a literal blinding flash of light and, all of a sudden, the town – all the people in it, all its associated real estate and tech – is transported into rural Germany in the middle of the Thirty Years War. An explanation for this (alien art project gone awry!) is given in the prologue,* clearing that off the table. So what happens next?

There could be a struggle to survival and a town torn apart under the strain of such a weird event. Flint doesn’t go there, however. Instead, he focuses on how the Americans interact with their newfound neighbors. Some are hostile, of course – the Americans did land smack dab in the middle one of Europe’s bloodiest religious wars – but many are more than willing to join up with the Americans who are united in the idea to begin the American revolution just a little bit early.

I mention the unanimity because it highlights the biggest problem I had with 1632 – a lack of believable human tension. Put simply, the folks of Grantville, not to mention the folks who were just visiting for a wedding, adjust to their new reality way too easily. I can see not wanting to get bogged down in the nitty gritty of survival and Flint cleverly sidesteps this by allowing Grantville to have most of its modern technology remain workable.

That still leaves a lot of rich ground for drama with the relationships between the various characters, but there’s none of that in 1632. Since there’s very little stress about survival there’s really nothing to expose fissures that would already exist in such a community. I mean, in a rural West Virginia community right now there are people who would gladly persecute their neighbor for worshiping the same God in the wrong way so it’s unbelievable that none of the residents of Grantville succumb to the sectarian madness in which they’re dropped. In Grantville there are no old grudges, no low-level feuds that explode in a new context. People just get along too well. I know it’s a little stilly to complain about realism in a story based on time travel, but the lack of strife in this community just passes my flying snowman point.

The oddly low stakes were confirmed for me in a scene where the town gathers together in the high school to sort of take stock and elect leadership (without any serious challenge, naturally). One of the science folks (a teacher at the high school, IIRC) makes the obvious, but still devastating, point that they’re probably never going home. To this announcement there is pretty much no reaction. Nobody weeps. Nobody storms out, unable to face the truth. Even the few characters who we know came to Grantville from out of town to the wedding don’t seem bothered. This was, like the death of a semi-major character in Saturn Run, a scene that made me wonder why I should care about any of this. Ultimately, I decided that I didn’t.

In an afterward, Flint explains that he was sick of fiction, particularly of the speculative sort, that was negative and focused on the worst of humanity. He wanted to write a positive portrayal of common folk who, if mentioned at all in such stories, tend to get cast as ignorant hicks. I appreciate where he’s coming from and, as a native West Virginian, appreciate the fact that his characters don’t fall into traditional stereotypes about the state (except that lots of them are coal miners). But all that’s still possible while providing some tension and strife amongst the people. Flint swung too far the other way, making his Americans too good, noble, and respectable.

Not every story works for every reader. Flipping through the Goodreads comments on 1632 I see a lot of people who love the book (and its sequels) for the precisely reasons Flint set forth in the afterward. Good for them. But I also see a good number of people who feel about like I do. Such is life; such is art.

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* Regardless of my other thoughts on the book, this is a brilliant gambit. Get it out of the way early and make it clear that’s not what the story is really about. It also makes me want to dive into just what genre this is – sci-fi because aliens or fantasy because, well, there’s no real science involved? Just one more thing to think about.

Favorite Reads of 2018

Since it’s getting down to the wire – I’m not down with “Best of” lists that show up in October – I figured now was the time to give a shout out to my favorite books from 2018. Two important notes: (1) these are favorites, not necessarily bests or whatever; I just loved them, and (2) the key phrase is “that I read in 2018,” so it includes books from before 2018. With that said, here we go (in no particular order) . . .

Nemesis Games (2015)

Nemesis

I’ve basically been keeping one book ahead of where the TV version of The Expanse is, but with the next season on Amazon taking parts from both the fourth (Cibola Burn) and fifth (this one) books, I figured I had to get a little more down the road with this series. I read Cibola Burn this year, too, and while I got the criticisms some people had with it, I didn’t think it was this bad. In comparison to Nemesis Games, however, it was a wet patch on the road. To say “things change” in Nemesis Games is to severely undersell it. That the writing hive mind that is James S.A. Corey managed to explode the cast, sending them off in different directions before pulling them back together, is no small feat, either.

Saga, Vol. 9 (2018)

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Oh, boy, that last twist. The good news is that after nine volumes Saga continues to be inventive, thrilling, thoughtful, and capable of numerous gut punches. The bad news is that writer Bryan K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples are taking “at least” a year off from the series before getting back to work on it. Part of me thinks that’s a good idea, but part of me worries if this shunts Saga into the realm of great, unfinished stories. Given the way this one ended, I sure hope not.

If you’re not reading Saga yet, here’s why I think you should.

The Field of Blood: Violence In Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)

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Many people know that, in the run up to the Civil War, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten by one of his Southern colleagues with a cane, providing the perfect metaphor for the turmoil that would soon rip the nation apart. What most folks don’t know is that, while Sumner’s beating stood out for its brutality, it was merely different in degree, rather than in kind, from numerous other incidents of Congressional violence. One Congressman even died in a duel (not on the House floor, to be fair). Not just a colorful “you were there” history, The Field of Blood looks back at another time when the political norms broke down and things sound frighteningly familiar to modern ears.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (2009)

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Pure fun. Well, pure darkly humorous fun, at the very least. Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the devil. To get it back, he’s have to deal in bulk, gathering 100 souls for the devil to replace his own, all while running a demonic travelling circus right out of the darker portions of Ray Bradbury’s psyche. This was probably the most fun I had with a book this year, partly because of what I’d just read before (see below), but also because there’s a sharp, dark wit that runs all the way through it.

Shattered Earth trilogy (2015-2017)

Broken

N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy – The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky – made history early this year when it won the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row, an unprecedented achievement. Is it that good? Absolutely. The Fifth Season, in particular, is a structural high-wire act that shouldn’t work, but completely does and leaves the reader knowing precisely why it was done. The other two books don’t quite reach that level, but the overall arc of the story and the characters that drive it is brilliant. Pretty heavy (I needed Johannes Cabal . . . to brighten me up a bit), but completely worth it.

I’ve written before about these books here and here.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (2018)

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I wrote a review of this one here, so I won’t say much more. If you want to get really pissed off about what “justice” looks like in this country (and you should), this is the book for you.

Neuromancer  (1984)

Neuromancer

Yeah, I know, very late to the party on this one. My college roommate read it and, for some reason, I let it get away from me. Does it hold up? Pretty much, although it’s clearly a product of its time. As a foundational text for cyberpunk it’s something every sci-fi fan and writer should check out. That it continues to tell a gripping story while introducing a lot of ideas we now take for granted is icing on the cake.

Children of Time (2015)

ChildrenofTime

I gushed about this one right after I read it, so check out the details here. Suffice to say, any book that can make you care about the macro evolutionary development of sentient spiders is an achievement.

Dystopia Versus Utopia

I think I was first exposed to dystopia in fifth grade. Not that my fifth grade teacher was some kind of demon or sadist, mind you. But it was around that time that I read for the first time, in quick succession, 1984, Brave New World, and Anthem (not to mention discovered its musical adaptation). There’s something seductive and compelling about dystopias, warnings about how things can go so very wrong. I’ve dived back into them a lot over the years, on the screen and on the page.

I’ve had less experience with utopias. I’ve never read the Thomas More work that gave birth to the name, if not the concept. I did read Plato’s Republic in college, but it’s hard to look at that as really being utopic to modern eyes. The other utopian novel I really remember reading is Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Written in 1888, it’s about a guy who sleeps for more than a century and awakes to find it a socialist paradise. Given what had actually happened by the time 2000 rolled around, it was a hilariously out of date prediction.

But I started thinking more about utopias as works of fiction recently after I read Island.

Island

It’s Aldous Huxley’s last novel and a kind of rejoinder to Brave New World. It covers a lot of the same big ideas as the earlier dystopian novel, but in an (allegedly) positive way. There’s a chart in the Wikipedia entry for the book that does a good job of boiling down the comparison:

IslandChart

Whatever the charms of Pala, the fictional southeast Asian island nation that provides the backdrop for Island, it’s not a very engaging work of fiction. Nominally it’s about a Brit, Will, who washes ashore there (intentionally, it seems) and experiences all the island’s many facets while recovering from his injuries. Said facets are a blend Buddhism, western liberalism, and (to at least one person’s eyes) Scientology and make sense in a lot of ways. Still, Will just basically drifts from place to place and while some individual scenes are well executed (there’s a very expected death later on that’s really touching), there isn’t much of a story.

I think this might be a problem inherent to utopian stories. Dystopias are about struggle, usually individuals standing up to some kind of overwhelming force. It’s easy to empathize with those characters, to buy into their struggle. Likewise, it’s easy to see where the antagonists in such stories are coming from. Written well, they think they’re doing the right thing, too. It’s the basis of good conflict, which is what drama is all about. In utopias, by contrast, everyone is pretty much happy. There’s not much conflict and, thus, not much drama. The narrative can be interesting, maybe even occasionally compelling, but it’s hardly something that sucks you in as a reader.

Another issue with utopias is that they can often seem kind of dystopic, depending on your point of view. I mentioned Plato’s Republic earlier, in which he sketches out his version of an ideal society – one that is anti-democratic, requires a rigid class system, and squishes individuals for the benefit of the state – that sounds more like a dystopia to me. Huxley’s Pala sounds like a pretty nice place – tropical weather, mind expanding drugs, all the sex you can have, creative alternatives to criminal justice – but it’s not perfect. For one thing there are mynah birds constantly harping out slogans (“Attention! Here and now, boys!”) that would be aggravating to no end. For another, all this apparently comes from the top down, mandated via a government overhaul that happened a generation or two back. There’s no indication what happens when somebody dissents from this version of the perfect life, how that’s handled. The only naysayers are the soon-to-be ruler and his European mother who are so out of touch that it’s clear Huxley doesn’t want you to take them seriously.

But the thing that struck me the most as dystopic in Island comes near the end, when the main character is talking with a local child about Oedipus Rex. They have the play in Pala, but it has a happy ending, wherein two children from Pala enter the play and convince everyone not to kill or maim themselves because none of this is their fault. To the problem of Oedipus being married to his mother, they simply advice stop being married to her. It all reeks of one of those stories modified by a totalitarian regime to show Dear Leader giving wisdom to historical figures and changing history. It’s also bizarrely simple minded in terms of a “solution” to the problem.

In the end, what makes it most difficult for me to get into utopias is that they are, at bottom, dreams that we know will never come true. Dystopias, by contrast, always seem prescient and just over the horizon (the good ones, at least). It’s not for nothing the More’s term means “no place.” Huxley basically concedes this in Island, as the book ends with the island’s new ruler (the one with the European mother) joining forces with the neighboring nation’s strongman to begin a quest to “modernize” Pala. Even in fiction, such places can’t last long.

UtopiaDystopia

On Judging A Book By Its Cover

The old saw is that you shouldn’t just a book by its cover. That’s a good rule of thumb when you’re dealing with people or if your presented with new ideas, but when it comes to actual books it’s kind of silly. Truth is a cover can often be someone’s first impression of a book and it can say several things about its contents, from the level of professionalism involved to the genre to particular aspects of the story or characters a reader might find intriguing.

Take, for example, the cover of The Water Road:

TWR Cover

That cover, I hope, tells you several things. Most notably, that this is the first book in a trilogy, so it’s part of an epic story. The background image and script mark it as fantasy, but the crossed muskets mark it as a different kind of fantasy – this isn’t your traditional sword and sorcery story. Without reading word one, you’ve got some idea of what to expect going in.

I don’t always pay that much attention to covers as a reader, since I do most of my reading via Audible listening and I rarely have the full-sized book in my hand. Not that covers never make a difference – one of my recent reads, Johannes Cabal: Necromancer, I got purely because the cover on the shelf at the bookstore drew me in (it was darkly funny – highly recommended). So, anyway, the blurb usually controls, as it did for Autonomous, by Annalee Newitz. Here’s the first half:

Autonomous features a rakish female pharmaceutical pirate named Jack who traverses the world in her own submarine. A notorious anti-patent scientist who has styled herself as a Robin Hood heroine fighting to bring cheap drugs to the poor, Jack’s latest drug is leaving a trail of lethal overdoses across what used to be North America—a drug that compels people to become addicted to their work.

Pretty cool, huh? I loved the idea of a rogue drug maker slipping through the high seas like a 21st-century Captain Nemo. But here’s the cover for Autonomous:

Autonomous_Design by Will Staehle

Does that really match the blurb? It doesn’t and, turns out, for good reason. Autonomous (which is pretty good – I recommend it) really isn’t about Jack so much as it is the beings in her orbit, particularly the robots and other enhanced beings. The book is really about their place in the world and what it means to really be free (or not). Hence the title. Hence the mechanical arm in chains. Hence some of my disappointment with the book itself.

Which is to say that covers can be tricky things. We, as authors, want people to judge our books by them – judge them as worthy of picking up, of clicking on, of reading. But they’re also a first impression, something you only get one chance to make. The right cover is a high wire act, one that most of us aren’t comfortable performing without a net.

Weekly Read: How to Stop Time

Every time I finish reading a book or watching a movie I have a routine I call “doing my due diligence.” I hop on the Web and read up on what I’ve just finished, looking for critical reviews, viewer feedback, and any interesting interviews/analyses I can find. Rarely do I find a review headline that so completely nailed my feeling about book during this due diligence as I did after I finished How to Stop Time. As the Irish Times put it:

StopTimeHeadline

I mean, it can’t get much better for a writer than for a critic to say “the only thing wrong is there’s not more of it,” right? Always leave them wanting more, as the saying goes.

It’s not quite that clear cut when it comes to How to Stop Time, but it does get pretty close.

The central conceit of the book is a reverse of progeroid syndromes, actual conditions where people age rapidly, usually dying young. The main character here, Tom Hazard, has just the opposite problem – he only ages one year for every 14 that pass. He’s not immortal, but long lived and robustly healthy. Needless to say, it causes issues.

The book bounces back between “now,” where Tom is trying to lead a normal life as a history teacher (makes sense), and various points in his past. Thus we see (in the 16th century) Tom do the one thing that all nearly immortal souls make – falling in love. The scars of that love run deep, reaching into the “now” world as Tom tries to overcome them. Along the way he rubs elbows with some famous folks – works for Shakespeare, sails with Captain Cook, hangs out with Fitzgerald and Zelda – but mostly drifts kind of aimlessly.

Trying to give some structure to things, and help those like Tom stay off the radar (because there are others), is the Albatross Society, so named because the birds have long life spans. Hendrich, the leader of this group of “Albers” who’s been around so long he actually looks old, dictates the parameters of Tom’s life as a mean of protection, he says, although it’s never really clear if there’s much of a threat.

Which is part of the problem with How to Stop Time. While the flashbacks are all interesting and dive deep into Tom’s character, the actual story doesn’t really get going very far until well past the book’s midpoint, at which is careens into motion so fast that it’s hard to keep up. In truth, this seems like about half a book, rather than a full novel. Is the threat Hendrich repeatedly intones real? Could Tom really find love with a regular woman in the modern world? What about his daughter with that long-dead love, a woman who has the same condition as he? So many areas go unexplored as the book barrels to its finish.

So it’s not so much that How to Stop Time is so great from beginning to end that you just want more of the good stuff; it’s more that it feels incomplete. Which is a shame, because the run up is really good and the basic idea is executed really well. Still highly recommended, even if you might wind up saying “is that all?” when you’re done.

HowtoStopTime