Weekly Read: The Last Emperox

I like John Scalzi. I really do. I came to him via his blog, Whatever, before I read any of his books, so I kind of got to “know” him first before I knew his work. I like the snark. I like the politics (mostly). I like the open and honest way he talks about his writing and the business aspects of it. He seems like a very open guy who is helpful to emerging writers and still a complete geeky fanboy about established ones (and, for the few moments he stopped by my table at the WV Book Festival a couple years ago, just a nice guy).

I wish I liked his books better.

Late last year when I was putting together my list of favorite books from the last decade I was surprised that only one of Scalzi’s made the initial cut based on how I’d rated them on Goodreads. Redshirts, which wound up making the final list, was the only one I’d given at least four starts. I’d enjoyed all the others – there were no 2-star clunkers – but most things didn’t get beyond “like” to “really loved.”

I mention that because I really hoped that The Last Emperox, the last book in the Interdependency trilogy, would break through that ceiling. The first two books (I reviewed the first one here) had a lot of promise, but seemed rushed, like there was more in them. With the end in sight I’d hoped it would tie things together in a super satisfying way. Instead, it was more of the same – good and good fun in spots, but ultimately short of great.

The best part of The Last Emperox (and the entire trilogy) is the idea of The Flow. Analogized to a kind of river in space it’s the in-universe way of travelling between distant stars. It isn’t really FTL, but it works like it. The operative fact for the trilogy is that The Flow is collapsing, which is going to cut off planets from each other and basically dooming human civilization.

Against this backdrop the story of the trilogy is various people coming to grips with this. Some are trying to solve the problem, some are trying to profit off of it, and some are trying just do the right thing. This is fairly interesting and some of the characters involved are great. Kiva Lagos is a great, fun character to read about. The suddenly and unexpectedly enthroned Emperox Grayland II is pretty interesting, too, as are several of the supporting players (one is essentially a sentient spaceship). All good stuff.

The problem is that all these interesting people are racing around pushing the plot so hard that sometimes the books come off like extended Wikipedia entries. Part of this has to do with some things that Scalzi does repeatedly that don’t work for me (your mileage may vary, as they say). One is that something will happen – suddenly, with no warning (given who the POV characters are), and often violently. Then we’ll get a couple of characters talk about what happened. It’s like in-world telling instead of showing. Plots – in the sense of plotting, conniving, conspiring – are a lot more fun when you can see the gears working during the wind up. Just getting the incident itself with an ex post explanation isn’t very satisfying.

Another thing that happens repeatedly is that something happens to a character that should move them off the board – a conspiracy foiled or an assassination – that really doesn’t mean anything in the end. The evil doer caught in the act escapes, the target of death really escaped serious harm – all explained after the fact. It gets to the point that when a very major “death” occurs in The Last Emperox you can’t care about it very much because there’s little chance it’s real.

Those issues wouldn’t matter all that much if the ending wasn’t so underwhelming. As I said, the entire motivation for this tale is that The Flow is collapsing and civilization is at risk. Folks come up with a clever way to save it and . . . then we learn that will happen years in the future, after this book is over. So, yay? You think it’s heading for a galaxy-defining moment and it just doesn’t.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe with this trilogy – it doesn’t feel like a complete story. It feels more like the first part of a larger trilogy (for epic space opera these books aren’t long), where a certain challenge is surmounted but the big one that would overarc the series has a lot of legs left to it.

I suppose that’s appropriate, though. The first two books mostly left me feeling the same way – I liked a lot of what they had to offer, but felt there was more there, lurking in the aether. I know the old show biz saying is “leave them wanting more,” but I’m not sure it applies to books – trilogies, especially.

LastEmperox

New Short Story – “The Nickel Tour”

I’m taking part in this year’s version of the NYC Midnight Short Story contest. The way it works is that for every round folks are divided into groups and each group is given a particular assignment in terms of genre, scenario, and a required character, along with a limited amount of time to write a story. As the competition goes on (there are four rounds in total) the time given to write the stories shrinks (as do the maximum word counts, thankfully).

The first round stories were due back in January. I was drawn into a group where the required genre was sci-fi, the scenario was a job interview, and the character was a mercenary. The word limit was 2500 words. The results finally came in last week and I made it out of the first group! So along with about 800 others I had to write a new story last weekend for the second round. We’ll see how that goes.

Here’s the story from the first round, “The Nickel Tour.” I took the title from a phrase used in my office when we interview someone and then show them around the office. That definitely played into the story and the setting. Enjoy!

The Nickel Tour

Reynolds was having a hard time taking his eyes off the stun grenade sitting on of the table. It was inert, or so the mercenary sitting across from them had said. Ada – that was all, just Ada – had assured her interviewers that unless the lights along the centerline were flashing it was perfectly safe, a harmless lump about the size of an egg, shaped like a rugby ball. Nothing to worry about.

Nearly all the other mercenaries interviewed for this new security position had been caught at the building checkpoint trying to bring in some kind of weapon. Ada hadn’t, which made her all the more impressive. She didn’t even look like a merc. The others looked like they had all come from central casting, clad in leather and with enough scars to fill a plastic surgery convention. Ada sat calmly, in a tailored light grey suit, with short blond hair, and blouse buttoned up to her neck. If someone from outside walked in on this, she would look like just another lawyer trying to get a job. Yet, somehow, she got that grenade into the office.

“You’ve had experience with sudden, emergent, rapidly changing situations?” Tacey, one of the partners, asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Ada said, shifting to look the attorney directly in the eyes. “I was part of the response team that dealt with the environmental collapse on Keneally Station out in The Ring. There was a sudden spike in CO2 levels, along with failing hydroponics and water regulators. Within a day the place was becoming toxic. Needless to say, people there were panicked and had to be contained.”

The way she said “contained” made Reynolds’ mouth dry. She made the violent control of desperate people sound like no more than a Saturday picnic.

“What about more long term problems? Something that you just can’t fix overnight?” Dipali, the senior partner, asked.

“Sir, I was on the Revenant when that mess went down,” she said, shifting again. “I can assure you, there was no short term solution there, but we managed to keep a lid on things.”

“What happened on the Revenant?” Reynolds asked. The others at the table looked at him like he’d asked them why water was wet.

“It was a long haul liner bound for Europa,” Ada explained. “There was some unpleasantness aboard.”

“On a cruise ship?” Reynolds asked, chuckling nervously.

“It wasn’t that kind of a liner, sir,” Ada continued. “It was full of refugees wanting to start a new life off-world. What the agents hadn’t realized is that they put a bunch of people in this ship who came from different clans that had been battling each other for generations – in business, arts, politics. Left with months of nothing to do other than stew on old grudges in close quarters, things turned . . . unpleasant.”

Everyone else around the table nodded, so Reynolds didn’t ask anything else. He returned his attention to the stun grenade and wondered how many of them she’d used during that “unpleasantness.”

“Your resume is impressive,” Tacey said, “but almost all of it is off-world.”

Ada nodded. “I’ve spent most of my career in The Ring, working for various mining co-ops. There was also a stint on Mars as part of a personal security detail. And I did a pair of deep space runs. I’m very comfortable in space. I’m very comfortable taking control of situations.”

“Then why come back to Earth? Why now?”

“Life in space can be very transitory, very unsettled,” she said. “I’ve reached the point in my life where I want more permanence. It sounds corny, but I just want to find a place to call home, maybe raise a family.”

“How long have you been off-world?” asked Dipali.

“Long enough that I need to make the choice before my body does it for me,” Ada said. “I’ve chosen Earth and I think this position would suit me very well.”

Tacey asked, “any experience with interdimensional beings?”

She squirmed in her seat. “Nothing professionally, ma’am. I’ve seen the vids, I’ve done some reading. I can assure you, however, that  I’m very good at getting up to speed in a new situation.”

The members of the hiring committee looked at each other and nodded.

“I think that’s all we need,” Dipali said, standing and extending his hand. “We’ll be in touch before the end of the week. For now, Reynolds here will give you the nickel tour. It was very nice to meet you.”

“You, too, sir.” Ada shook hands before everyone else left the room, leaving her and Reynolds alone. “Does every interviewee get to see the office?”

Reynolds shook his head. “You’re the first. I’d say that’s a good sign.” He nodded to the grenade. “Should you pick that up?”

“Leave it,” she said. “It’s a paperweight.”

“You’re the expert,” he said, opening the door into the back office.

The offices of Dipali, Tacey, and Waldroup were like one of those tunnel systems that prairie rodents dig. The outside world sees, at most, the reception area and one of the two conference rooms adjacent to it. Only employees, the odd repair person, and select interviewees get to see what lies beyond.

“Probably seems a little confusing,” Reynolds said as he led her back past a cube farm filled with busy legal assistants. “It will actually make perfect sense once we get back out front.”

“It’s a circle,” Ada said. “But lead on.”

They paused for some  introductions, then continued into the more secluded area of the attorneys’ offices.

“How many attorneys are there?” Ada asked after they’d met another pair of associates.

“A dozen,” Reynolds said. “The three partners on the front door, a couple of junior partners, and then the associates, like me.”

“How long have you worked here?”

“Couple of years. That’s why I was in on your interview, since I was the last hire. It’s kind of a tradition.”

“And what is it you do, exactly?” She was in earnest, information gathering mode, not just making idle chit chat.

“I specialize in cultural understandings, and misunderstandings, in interdimensional contract law. I was brought on when the firm started doing interdimensional work. It’s the same reason we’re hiring a security specialist.”

Ada nodded as they walked down the curved corridor. “Cultural understandings? You make sure nobody’s feelings get hurt?”

He shook his head. “A contract is a meeting of the minds between two parties, or more, to do particular things. You have to know the cultural background of each party to know how that meeting of the minds happens or if it happens at all. Think of it as a way to avoid any . . . unpleasantness.”

Ada nodded at the call back. “Like what?”

“You said you’ve never dealt with an interdimensional being before.”

She shook her head. “Only humans out in space.”

“Well, consider how contract terms might mean different things to a human from our world and, say, a human from Earth-13, where the sky is purple and the sun never really sets. Or if the other party to the contract is a being of pure energy, like the Sostu. Some of our clients are Tuv’O, which for all the world look just like orchids. But they’re sentient!” Reynolds couldn’t help getting excited when he talked about his work.

“And they need contracts?” Ada asked, tugging at her collar.

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“If they’re plants, then how do they,” she paused for a moment, swallowing hard, “how do they get around, much less to another dimension?”

“They’re carried around by a bonded pair of Ez’ak – think a Chihuahua crossed with a beetle – with whom they communicate telepathically. It’s really fascinating.”

“If you say so.”

“Now you’re in for a real treat,” Reynolds said. He knocked on a door, then opened it, letting Ada walk in before him. “Meet Frunobulax.”

Ada looked around the cramped room, jammed with sleek, black computer equipment. On top of one black box, near the door, was a small orb, pulsing with pale orange light. “Who?”

“It’s our office AI,” Reynolds said. “Say hi to Ada, Fru.”

The orb’s glow intensified and deepened into the color of a rich sunset. “Hello, Ada,” it said in a smooth, controlled voice that was clearly artificial without sounding like a computer.

“Had much experience with AI?” Reynolds asked.

Ada shook her head. “Just about every ship making runs out past Luna has some kind of AI, but nothing like this.”

“Fru is the cutting edge of AI and machine learning. He was given basic programming, then let loose on the entirety of human knowledge to develop a personality. That’s where he got the name.”

Ada looked at him, confused.

“Frunobulax has something to do with Frank Zappa,” Reynolds explained. “Fru fell deep into his discography during his learning phase and liked the name.”

“It is a very large poodle dog,” Fru threw in.

She nodded, still not getting it. “What does Fru do?”

“I handle most of the background office functions, from environmental controls to lighting,” Fru said.

“All of that’s out of human hands?” Ada asked, voice cracking slightly.

Reynolds nodded. “Those factors can be very important, depending on which clients are around,” Reynolds explained. “Fru is much better at handling them in real time than we’d ever be.”

“I can also analyze data at a much faster rate than the humans,” Fru continued. “And, of course, I manage the mathematics behind the rift generator.”

Her eyes went wide. “What did it say?”

Reynolds grinned. “Come on,” he said, leading her out of the room, closing the door behind him.

They walked past a few more doors, as the loop that was the inner office turned back toward reception, when they came to a black door without any visible handle. Ada looked around as they walked, like all of a sudden she was plotting an exit strategy.

“You’ll like this,” Reynolds said, grinning like a kid showing off his Christmas toys. He leaned in to a panel near the door while a laser scanned his eyes. Once a soft “bong” confirmed he’d passed that test, he exhaled on the panel. It turned green and the door whisked open. He stepped into the doorway to hold it open while Ada walked inside.

The room itself was about the size of a two-car garage. It was immaculately clean, with what appeared to be bare white walls, floor, and ceiling. At the far end was an arch of dull grey metal, studded with pulsing, purple emitters.

When Ada saw it, her hands shot too her mouth, like she’d seen a ghost.

“Pretty cool, huh?” Reynolds said, beaming.

“This law firm really has an interdimensional rift generator?” She said, mouth agape. “I hoped that computer was joking!”

Reynolds nodded. “I said we were on the cutting edge of interdimensional law. How else could we be? It’s a small one, but it gets the job done.”

She gave him a sharp look. “Is that legal?”

“It’s not illegal,” Reynolds said with a shrug. “There’s no law against it, if that’s what you mean. This is an office full of lawyers. You think they’d do something that might be against the law?”

Ada didn’t seem convinced. “But all the other rift generators are in space, either in Earth orbit or out in The Ring.”

“Because that’s where they were first built,” Reynolds said, strolling around the room. “There’s nothing about rift generation that requires vacuum or zero gravity. No reason why you shouldn’t have one on Earth.”

“No reason?” Her voice was rising. She undid the top button on her blouse with one hand and fanned herself with the other. “What about Field Station? That, that . . . thing they summoned?”

“An early calculation error,” Reynolds said, waving away her concern. “Fru would never let that happen here.”

“What about that entire mining colony in The Ring, the one that just disappeared?”

“Sabotage, of course” Reynolds said. “That’s why we’re hiring a security specialist. Are you all right?”

Ada was breathing fast, taking gulping breaths.

“Come on, let’s finish up the tour.” He repeated the process to open the door and Ada ran out ahead of him into the hallway. She was doubled over, gasping, hands on her knees.

Reynolds started to pat her on the back, but thought better of it. “Maybe should have saved that for another day. It’s probably a lot to take in.”

She stood and nodded. “That a device capable of ripping apart the fabric of space, and perhaps wiping out the Earth in the process, is in the hands of a boutique law firm? Yeah, that’s one way to put it.”

“We’re not James Bond villains,” Reynolds said, chuckling. “Come on, we’ll stop by Mr. Waldroup’s office, so you can meet him.”

“Actually, if it’s all right, I should be going,” Ada said. “I know you’ve got work to do and I need to get to the shuttle pad to catch my flight back to Luna.”

Reynolds stopped and was going to ask why she didn’t want to meet the one named partner she hadn’t seen yet, but decided against it. “Sure, Ada. Whatever you say.”

Walking back towards reception he had a hard time matching her pace without starting to trot. It was like she knew where she was going now and was intent on getting there as quickly as possible.

When they reached reception, Reynolds took a couple of longer strides just to make sure she couldn’t bolt straight through the door. He was certain she could brush him aside if need be, but he hoped she wouldn’t end a job interview like that.

Ada stopped, ran a hand through her hair, and took a deep breath. She held out her hand. “Thanks for the tour. It was . . . eye opening.”

“You’re welcome,” Reynolds said. “Like Mr. Dipali said, I’m sure you’ll hear something back by the end of the week.”

She nodded, stepped around him, and through the door.

“Safe travels,” Reynolds said, waving at the closed glass front door.

“What was that all about?” asked the receptionist.

Reynolds shrugged. “Beats me.”

The next morning, Reynolds was checking his email when a new message arrived. The subject line said “Sorry.” It was from Ada.

“Thanks for the tour yesterday,” she said. “I’ve decided that coming back to Earth isn’t the right decision for me, so I won’t be joining your firm.”

“I wanted to tell you to go grab that stun grenade, if you can,” the message continued. “You can activate it by twisting the narrow end three times to the right, then twice to the left. After that, all you have to do is compress it between your hands, throw it, and run like hell.”

“Memorize that, Reynolds,” she said in closing. “You’re going to need it.”

Reynolds locked his workstation and headed for the conference room.

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Weekly Read: How Long ‘til Black Future Month?

Short story collections are weird beasts. By definition they rise and fall on the strength of each individual story, which I think makes it a little easier to notice the flaws. A dull spot in an otherwise good novel is most likely to just slip down the memory hole at the end of the day. A story that doesn’t work sticks out a little bit more. Given the number of stories in N.K. Jemisin’s first collection you’d expect more than a few duds. As the song says, “not everything everybody does works all the time, son.”. What’s amazing about Jemisin’s collection is how often everything does work.

This is a lengthy collection, so I’m not going to mention every story in it, only a few of the highlights. The first, for me, was “The City Born Great,” in which a homeless kid becomes a kind of midwife to the entire city of New York as it’s “born.” The setup is interesting and the birthing process itself is wonderfully evocative.

“The Effluent Engine” is a kind of alternate history/steampunk hybrid, where Haiti becomes this hemisphere’s leader in the dirigible race, leading a spy (of sorts) to come to New Orleans seeking aid from a famous engineer. A romantic angle cropped up here that at first made me roll my eyes (not because it involved two women – it just seemed cliché), but Jemison turned it on its head in the end, much to my delight.

My favorite title, if not my favorite story, in the collection is “Cloud Dragon Skies” (sounds like a Steve Hill age song – and, yes, I’ve got a musical idea for it in my head). Set in a future where most of humanity has moved off the poisoned Earth, the sky is now red and the clouds have become kind of sentient. Those who left try to fix it, but it doesn’t help. An interesting narrative and point-of-view in this story.

“The Elevator Dancer” is just a great, really short story about the power, or the need, to ignore something that’s right in front of you. The dystopia in which the story is set reminds me a little of the one in Zappa’s Joe’s Garage where music has been declared illegal. There are some things so essential to our humanity that no oppressive force can quash.

Of the several stories that revolve around food, my favorite is “Cuisine des Memoires,” about a restaurant that can serve any meal from any time in history, from the famous to the personal. Naturally the main character can’t leave well enough alone and wanders into a meditation on magic and memory.

In her introduction, Jemisin talks about how she same to write short stories and about how she sometimes uses them to try out worlds she’s thinking of using for novels. That comes through in “Stone Hunger,” which is set in the world of her Hugo-winning Fifth Season trilogy and “The Narcomancer,” which does the same in the world of her Dreamblood duology. I enjoyed the later one more, since it was completely new to me. The other felt a little like a demo version of a song – interesting, but not quite up to the final product. If I’m not misreading, I think “The City Born Great” I mentioned above served this purpose for Jemisin’s new novel, The City We Became.

A couple stories left me scratching my head more than anything else. The lead off, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” is a direct consequence to the Ursula K Le Guin story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” about an apparent utopia that comes at a terrible cost. Jemisin’s story is also about a utopia maintained through a vigorous program of execution for anyone who steps out of line ideologically. It’s hard to tell whether this is an agreement with “Omelas” that utopia isn’t really possible, or if it’s arguing that it can be possible with a cost, so let the cost be borne by those who deserve it. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Likewise “Henosis,” a dark tale about a prestigious literary award that leads to the winner’s death. I can’t decide if it’s a pitch perfect satire of writers’ desire for glory or such a silly idea that it’s nonsensical.

There are a few other stories that just didn’t work for me, although none of them are “bad” in a meaningful sense. Not because they aren’t cool ideas – “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” in particular is very cool – but because they feel rushed, almost like they’re half stories. “Non-Zero Probabilities” feels the same way, but I see that it was nominated for a Nebula and a Hugo when it was first published (several of these stories are available online – hence the all the links, all legit), so what do I know?

All in all, How Long ‘til Black Future Month continues the serious roll Jemisin has been on the past few years. Most of these stories are great and show a great deal of range in terms of style, tone, and subject. In the introduction, Jemisin explains that she started writing short fiction in order to improve her novel writing. Other writers can only hope our exercises bear such amazing fruit.

BlackFutureMonth

Weekly Read – Quick Hits

While I was off doing NaNo and writing a book last month I was also consuming a few (that’s much easier). Here’s some thoughts about the ones I finished . . .

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Leckie broke out in 2013 with Ancillary Justice, a Hugo-winning sci-fi epic that I really enjoyed. She takes odd approaches to characters and settings that make the stories more interesting. I wasn’t as thrilled with the sequel, Ancillary Sword, but when I heard she wrote a fantasy novel, I had to check it out. As I expected, it’s got quite a different feel to it – the main character is, honestly, a rock. OK, so it’s a god embodied in a rock, but still. The rock god stuff works better than the human story until the two begin to intertwine. The ending really knocked my socks off, even though I predicted it. My usual is to love the openings of books and be let down by the finish – this was just the opposite.

A word on the audio version – if  you sometimes listen and sometimes read, I’d definitely recommend reading this one. The narrator for the audiobook (who also did the Ancillary novels) is horrible, imposing difficult to understand dialects on just about every character and turning the main non-rock character into a whining child.

RavenTower

The Terror by Dan Simmons

In high school when I started The Grapes of Wrath I had to take a break after the first chapter and go get a drink – Steinbeck’s description of the Dustbowl was so vivid I was literally parched. Long stretches of The Terror are like that, too, but with bitter cold in the place of thirst. Simmons takes the unknown fate of a doomed Arctic expedition and spins a tale that’s both historical fiction and bleak horror. Yes, there’s a monster involved, but the real evil lies in the hearts of men, naturally. It’s a little too long and doesn’t stick the landing (a hard right turn into native mythology), but there are some superbly vivid and disturbing set pieces along the way that make it worthwhile.

TheTerror

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. It’s got a great setup – in an alternate 1950s (Dewey really did defeat Truman, for some unexplained reason) a meteorite slams into the East Coast near D.C., killing millions and wrecking the economy. But it gets worse – the main character, a “calculator” at this world’s version of NASA figures out that the impact will cause climate issues that will render the planet uninhabitable. This jumpstarts the space program and leads to said main character becoming the first woman in space (this is not a spoiler – this is essentially a prequel to a short story written about this character years ago). The story is interesting enough, but it’s frustratingly narrow, since the POV is focused only on the main character. One suspects there’s so much else going on in this world as it comes to grips with the situation that would be interesting to explore. Also, while I thought it was great that the main character’s husband was perfectly loving and supportive, the repeated rocketry-punned sex stuff got really old really quick.

CalculatingStars

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

This is almost like the flip side of The Calculating Stars. In this book, the asteroid hasn’t hit Earth yet, but it’s coming and, as a result, everything’s gone to shit. The main character is a young cop in New Hampshire trying to convince anyone who will listen that the “hanger” found in a pirate McDonald’s bathroom is a real murder, not just yet another suicide. The investigation plays out against the background of impending calamity and what it does to society and the human psyche. That was by far the most interesting part of the book, which unfortunately was mostly pushed back in favor of a fairly lackluster mystery. As with The Calculating Stars, the POV being limited to the main character means we get fascinating glimpses of the wider world, but never really get to engage with it.

LastPolice

I’d recommend any of these, depending on what kind of story tickles your particular fancy. Obviously I really liked the first two, while the others were just OK. Still, they’re both award winners, so who am I to say?

Weekly Read: The New and Improved Romie Futch

This spring the wife and I spent a long weekend in the other Charleston (South Carolina) and, naturally, found our way to a bookstore. There, in a display of local authors, I was drawn to one of the wildest covers I’d seen in a while:

RomieFutch

The concept seemed as intriguing as the artwork, so I put it on my “to read” list. Having now finally digested the saga of Romie Futch I can say the whole book lives up to the wild premise of that cover.

Romie is a man in a mid-life mess, with an unsatisfying job as a taxidermist, some issues with substance abuse, and carrying a huge, blazing torch for his ex-wife. He sees a potential way out of his rut in a medical experiment in which he (and several other similarly down-on-their-luck middle-aged dudes) has volumes of knowledge downloaded directly into his brain, turning him into a super loquacious narrator.

Armed with his newfound data dump, Romie tries to get his life on track. That largely involves occasional blackouts and other issues related to his upgrades, continued pining for his ex-wife, renewed interest in taxidermy as post-modern art, and the pursuit of an enormous mutated wild boar dubbed Hogzilla. No prizes for figuring out where the cover image came from then.

But that’s not really the point. The joy of this book is in the character of Romie and those he meets as he tries to get his life straight. Author Julia Elliott has lots of fun with Romie’s newfound vocabulary – the scene where he and several other test subjects sit down and talk for the first time, each unable to keep up with the stream of 5-dollar words coming out of their mouths, is hilarious. It helps set the tone for the rest of the book, too, as everything is always on the verge of just being too much – too many words, too many character quirks – but Elliott always keeps it from going too far. Romie may not have the best life, but it’s an amusing one to be a part of for a while (another highlight – his inner verbal monologue imagining his pregnant ex-wife being knocked up by her fiancé’s young hipster relation).

Along the way, Elliott is able to explore a lot of different areas of modern (and near-future) life. The whole book has a decaying Southern Gothic vibe to it, wherein all politicians are corrupt and big corporations wield power without any real oversight. There’s definitely a strain of anti-science through the book, as the only real knowledge pushers are doing it for malevolent ends (so far as we know – more on that later). It’s deeply cynical and the satire is pretty sharp in spots.

That being said, it does feel like there are some missed opportunities here and there. Romie’s pursuit of Hogzilla is much more satisfying than just about anything to do with the medical experiments performed on him. Since our point of view is Romie’s we never get a broader picture of what the point of the experiment was or who was really behind it. When it comes to wrapping up that part of the story the book feels at its most perfunctory, like Elliott knew she had to do something with it but wasn’t quite sure what. It’s a minor quibble, since this is a book where the journey is well worth taking, even if the destination isn’t quite what you hoped for.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite character trait of Romie’s – that he’s a progressive rock fan! It starts out early with references to Yes and The Moody Blues, but gets so esoteric as to include a reference to Henry Cow bassoonist (you read that right) Lindsay Cooper. Romie has a particular affinity for King Crimson (not the Belew years, apparently, as the songs he name drops later all come from the band’s earlier days). To say I could see a bit of myself in him is an understatement.

The bottom line is that I enjoyed this book a whole bunch. Whatever shortcoming it might have with some of the plot is more than made up for by the characters and the way they’re written. Weird and highly recommended – just like King Crimson.

Weekly Read: Great North Road

There was a time when how long an “album” could be was confined to the limits of vinyl. Somewhere between 35 and 50 minutes was the best you could do, and the higher limits were only available with compromising sound quality (hence why all the old Zappa/Mothers albums are so short per side), unless you were making a double. Regardless, it set expectations for what an “album” should be.

Then along came CDs and all that changed. The apocryphal story goes that the amount of music a CD could hold was designed so it could contain all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, so about 79 minutes worth of music. Not surprising then that artists in the 1990s and 2000s took full advantage of the extended time, sometimes with great effect (Mike Keneally) and sometimes with an overabundance of filler (I’m looking at you Flower Kings). Equally unsurprising that, as we push on towards the 2020s, album lengths have generally returned to that 45-50 minute zone, even though with digital download formats they could be nearly endless.

Which is to say that in a world of vinyl-length novels, Great North Road is a jam-packed, full-length CD (my understanding is that author Peter Hamilton is known for lengthy books). Sadly, like many of those early Flower King albums, it doesn’t benefit from the additional time it takes up.

Which is a shame, because there are some very cool things happening in Great North Road. The title itself is a bit of a hint, as “North” is actually the family name of a huge clan of clones that has more money than God at this point. The family fortune was made on supplying a petroleum replacement (in the audiobook it sounds like “bi-oil,” but I have no idea how it’s actually spelled) sourced from the planet St. Libra. Said planet is reached through a Stargate kind of gateway located in (of all places) Newcastle, England. There are other worlds, other portals, and an existential threat called the Zanth (again, no idea how it’s spelled) that lingers over everything.

Into all this comes the murder of a North in Newcastle, which kicks off the book’s parallel plots. One is terrestrial, as a Newcastle cop tries to solve the murder. The other takes place mostly on St. Libra, where a military expedition is mounted to find if there is, perhaps, sentient alien life on St. Libra after all. The focus of that plot thread is Angela, who’s lengthy backstory is revealed as the book progresses. She, and her backstory in particular, is the most interesting part of the book, since it allows Hamilton to explore some other worlds and the societies that have developed on them. The way Angela’s past informs her present and dovetails into the St. Libra plot is really well done, even if that plot line is largely an extended riff on the “expedition is caught in the middle of nowhere with an angry monster” trope.

There’s no such compelling narrative to the plot happening in Newcastle, however. While the two do connect in the end, you’re left wondering if the Newcastle stuff could be confined to a lengthy prologue. The investigation just goes on too long with lots of extraneous details (the narratives of the way detectives navigate Newcastle’s highways makes me think of the SNL skit “The Californians”). Sid, the main detective, is a decent enough character, but he never really comes to life.

There are other annoyances – all the woman are beautiful, the Newcastle banter is really repetitive, things really wrap up a bit to neatly – that come and go, but given the length of the narrative they pop up a lot. It makes the narrative more of a slog than you’d expect for an interstellar adventure in which clones and a monster somewhat reminiscent of Hyperion’s shrike should be.

So all in all, there’s a really good, interesting book to be exhumed from Great North Road, but the effort leads to a solid shrugging of the shoulders by the end.

GreatNorthRoad

All Stories Are About Characters

There’s this scrappy little independent film out in theaters now, Avengers: Endgame, that you might have heard about. Without going deeply into spoilers, let’s just say that it involves what the Doctor might call some “timey wimey” nonsense. Thus I was kind of pleased when I saw this article by Michal Schick pop through my Google stream:

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I figured this would be a good reminder of what I call the MST3K philosophy: “repeat to yourself this is just a [movie], you should really just relax.” After all, there’s been considerable ink spilled on what the time travel stuff in Endgame means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whether it “works,” and all that kind of stuff. It’s interesting, but there’s a certain amount of diminishing returns the further you dive in.

So imagine my surprise when Schick went a different direction:

Endgame2

This is a good and overlooked point when it comes to superhero stuff. Many superheroes tend to have a sheen of the scientific about them, an explanation for why they have superpowers – Spider Man is who he is because he was bitten by a radioactive spider, Superman is who he is because he’s from another planet and the rays of our sun give him powers. But let’s be honest – that’s all bullshit. It’s not as if the scientific explanations really hold up to scrutiny or are based on extrapolations of known science. They sound cool and that’s enough.

With that recognition, however, we’re clearly in the realm of fantasy rather than science fiction. That means that when there’s time travel in Endgame it’s not trying to be scientifically rigorous. Instead, it’s a kind of “just so” setup, something you have to just accept as part of that world. It may be internally inconsistent and that’s worth criticizing, but bagging on the film for not getting time travel in general “right” is missing the point.

After agreeing with the article up to this point, I took a hard turn into disagreement. After noting, correctly, that often the quick and dirty classification of things as fantasy or sci-fi depends on what they look like (the good example they use is “blasters and ray guns” equal sci-fi, while “magic wands” doing basically the same thing equal fantasy), it goes all wrong:

Far, far more important to genre are the interests and values of the story itself.

Does the story prioritize character (fantasy) or does it highlight and interrogate plot and concept (science fiction)? Do the story’s values live in the realm of emotion and experience (F), or intellect and ideology (SF)? Is the creator working with the primary interests of fantasy or science fiction, not to design their world, but to define it?

No, no, no. “Emotion and experience” are part and parcel of any story, regardless of the genre. Science fiction may be particularly susceptible to stories where the tech is more important than the people using it, but if there’s no emotional connection to those characters you might as well just read a technical manual. I’ve written about this before, but I think it does sci-fi a disservice to think it’s not about characters.

To me, the admittedly hazy line between sci-fi and fantasy comes from how the author treats the world in which the story is being told, not the characters. Worlds that look more like ours and where the element of the fantastic has some real connection to ours fall on the sci-fi side of the line, while a world whose differences from ours just are tends to fall under the fantasy umbrella. Neither classification is a marker of quality, much less determinative of how the characters are developed and how readers connect with them.

That’s the most important part of telling a story, regardless of genre. People want to care about characters. They want “emotion and experience.”

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.”

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:

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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.

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)

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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)

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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.