Thursday, December 3, 2020

Book Review: Osama by Lavie Tidhar


 

Osama by Lavie Tidhar

Paperback, 304 pages
Published October 9th 2012 by Solaris (first published 2011)



 
World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (2012)
British Science Fiction Association Award Nominee for Novel (2011)
The Kitschies Nominee for Red Tentacle (Novel) (2011)


Time is a funny thing. Around 2007 one of the Science Fiction new wave’s elder statesmen Norman Spinrad was collecting rejections around New York. This was rare in his four-decade career. The book he couldn’t sell was a radical one for sure. Osama the Gun a novel set in a future Al-Qaeda-inspired caliphate was a bold story for sure.  I mean you are talking about the guy who satirized the Lord of Rings by writing a novel as Hitler and got it published as the Iron Dream in the 70s. No one would touch his Osama book.

A few years later in 2012, Lavie Tidhar upset the World Fantasy award by beating a couple of lightweights like Stephen King and George RR Martin. The remarkable thing is the novel he won with was an alternate History called Osama.  I can imagine Norman Spinrad’s raised eyebrow who only published his novel the year before after years of trying.  He couldn’t get anyone to touch his Osama novel while this one won a major award.

Hey, it is all subjective and timing is everything. I like both novels but Lavie Tidhar’s Osama is operating on another level. It was my mission this year to read several books on the topic of Speculative Fiction and the War on Terror. I had decided to save this one not only because it won the big prize but I knew it was respected by author and professor D.Harlan Wilson who picked it as his Dick-like Suggestion on our podcast Dickheads. He referred to it as the type of novel that Phil had wanted to write.  

The comparisons to The Man in the High Castle are obvious but it appears Tidhar was not shy about parallels to the classic Hugo winner.  It is hard to not compare these two books but I am going to do my best. One underrated aspect of PKD’s alternate worlds is they are not the opposite of ours. The reality where the allies won in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy the novel inside a novel is not ours. The history is different. That is indeed the tactic that Tidhar takes with this story.

Through-out the events of Osama, there is a blending between the fiction of the novel, The fictional novel in the story, and details from actual history. As a human being, Tidhar mentioned on the very first page I think as a disclaimer that he had several near misses with famous terrorist attacks.  In some ways, he was a witness to this history in a unique way. This motivates the story and standing in for Tidhar is our main point of view character Joe.  We know Joe is a Detective, and that he lives in a French Indochina that never saw the conflict and war that southeast Asia did in our reality.  We don’t know much else not even his last name.

Joe’s mission in the book is to find Michael Longshott is pulp novelist who writes the Osama Bin Laden novels that are a popular series of books about a terrorist vigilante who has become popular. While some of the events sound like our history they are slightly off.  A very fine point is put on the question of what if and how it relates to the Middle East and the War on Terror. A character asks the question outright.

“What if the Cairo Conference of 1921 went ahead as planned, with Churchill and T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell dividing up the Middle East for the British? What if they chose a Hashemite king to rule Iraq, and would that have led to a revolution in the nineteen fifties? Or, what if the French war in Indochina somehow led to American involvement in Vietnam? Or if the British held on to their colonies in Africa after the Second World War? You see – " he was in full steam now, his eyes shining like the headlamps of a speeding engine – "the Vigilante series is full of this sort of thing. A series of simple decisions made in hotel rooms and offices that led to a completely different world.”


This novel makes clear that decisions made at Downing Street and hotels are the main ingredients of this conflict. The real answer to why do they hate us? Is so drastic that it takes a blending of reality and fiction to process. Osama Bin Laden became a bogeyman; he became a living alternate history depending on what world and reality you choose to live in. In one reality he is a mythic figure with conventions and a fan following. In another, he is the most hated and hunted man by the most powerful nation on the planet.

“It was a war about fear, he thought, not figures on the ground. It was a war of narrative, a story of a war, and it grew in the telling.”

The conflict has always on been about narratives, from attacks meant to inspire fear to Bin Laden being buried at sea to reduce the idea of an honorable funeral.  A story about false histories and blending realities is a good way to comment on this conflict. Terror at the end of the day is an emotion and a War on Terrorism will always, in the end, be about who controls the narrative.

Joe spends the bulk of the book trying to find Mike Longshott, what started as a job becomes an obsession. If there is a weakness to this book in my opinion that search takes a bit too long. As Joe gets closer his grip on reality begins to melt away. It is at this point that goes from being influenced by Philip K Dick and his classic High Castle to being in conversation with it.

Is Joe being affected by drugs?  Is he a victim of terrorism reliving trauma?  By the time he gets to the heart of the mystery, he could be in a hidden pocket between universes. The speculative elements at this point go beyond the alt-history and are delightfully weird.   

“Joe wished it had all been just a dream. To think of planes crashing into impossibly-tall towers, of bombs taking out eyes and teeth and fingers, of a silent, secret war he didn’t understand, was to think of fiction, a cheap paperback thriller with a lurid cover. There was – there could be – nothing real about such things.”

This novel is beautifully written with artful prose. Tidhar has command of the concept and the message and translates it through a noir detective spectrum. It is influenced by classics and the conversation of ideas and ideals makes this book a profound act of Science Fiction. It deserves the awards it won and in fact, I am surprised it didn’t win more. As a commentary on the War on Terrorism, it is spot on and an excellent example of what IMPORTANT science fiction can do.


Thursday, November 26, 2020

Book Review: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

 


Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

Paperback, 281 pages
Published January 2018 by Penguin Books (first published March 1st 2013)

 

Arthur C. Clarke Award Nominee (2019)

International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) (2014)
International Booker Prize Nominee (2018) 

Frankenstein in Baghdad was a book I couldn’t avoid this year.  One of my reading themes this year has been the speculative fiction take on the War on Terrorism. Since it was recognized by the three listed awards it was well known for its a surreal and dark satire of the American occupation of Iraq. This novel is a prime example of what the horror genre can do to highlight and expose the corruption and sad realities of 21st-century colonialism.

Now that GW Bush is retired in Texas doing his best Bob Ross it is easy to let the misery our nation caused in Baghdad fade into memory. That is one of the reasons this novel is so important. Under the guise of phantom weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. invasion kicked up a hornet's nest of violence that became a part of daily life in the city of Baghdad.

Ahmed Saadawi is using a surreal fantasy to highlight the very nightmare of military occupation. The story follows a variety of characters around the city. I know it is a trite statement to say that the city is a character, but in this case, the occupation is a character. The person who really drives the early moments of the story is Hadi who is a junk dealer who is kinda known for his wild stories. In his form of personal protest, he collects the body parts of victims of violence and with each collection, we get the person’s story.

Once the parts are collected, they are brought back to life by magic. This monster is called Whatshisname and despite being the reanimated bits and pieces of war victims the horror around them makes him less of the story than you might think.

There is a large cast of characters and even the list of them in the front didn’t totally help me keep them all clear. That was the one thing that didn’t totally work for this reader.

The fantasy elements were interesting but the solidly anti-war and occupation moments are what make this book interesting. Whatshisname is a collection of body parts that certainly invokes old Frankie. There is not much connection to the Mary Shelly classic but that is not the point.
The novel highlights many elements of the occupation that gets overlooked in this country. What are the divisions in cultures throughout the region, what different religions make up the region then the novel is doing something important.  Internationally the need for a spotlight on the history and lasting impact of the W’s invasion is more than just a resurgent ISIS.

There are aspects of this novel I am sure people not from inside the bubble would not get. I know many religious themes are beyond me. The thing is I want to be exposed to those things. That is why I read and review translated genre fiction. If you want your eyes opened in this way reading translated genre is a great way to do it, and this book is a great example.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Book Review: Stay Ugly by Daniel Vlasaty


 

Stay Ugly by Daniel Vlasaty
Paperback, 161 pages
Published February 2020 by All Due Respect, an imprint of Down & Out Books 
 
 This is my second book by the author, but the first book I read was Vlasaty's early New bizarro author series entry The Church of TV as God.  I read that six years ago and said "So enter Daniel Valasty and then Church of TV as God. This is a surreal social commentary that seems tightly packed. I think this concept and story could have been twice as long under the skill of a writer like Valasty."

There have been almost forty of the New Bizarro Author series books and this one of the ones that stuck with me.  Besides my writing parter Anthony Trevino's King Space Void this was Vlasaty's entry was my favorite.  I checked all of the titles, even if I only finished and reviewed a few of them. Sometimes the full-on Bizarro doesn't connect with me.

This is a personal thing as I am a plot and vivid character reader.  I could see even writing in a genre where those elements are not mandatory that Vlasaty had skills. So I was excited as DV started to release short novellas and novels in the crime genre. While I suggested that he could write longer pieces, it is clear that these short works are his sweet spot.

This is a smart direction for this author who is writing what he knows, considering his day job was for years working in a methadone clinic. Many of the smartest decisions a writer makes is long before they sit down to write. Authors that live in the real world and have unique experiences kinda have a duty to work them into their fiction.

Stay Ugly is a hard-boiled mystery novel that delivers on the title. It is a grim ugly tale, that is entertaining and for those with a dark sense of humor, it is funny.  In 180 or so pages Stay Ugly is a tightly packed mystery that all unfolds after midnight in one of Chicago's nastier hoods. Every football coach quote Richard Pryor who said nothing good happens after midnight.

This story is told in first person by Eric whose small Rogers park world post-prison can't break the habit of calling him Ugly. He is not helping matters by dominating week after week the neighborhood's underground fight club. After winning another fight he was the smaller underdog in the dealer at the center of the fight club tells him that Eric's brother has disappeared with 100K of product.

His brother is marked for death unless Eric can find him first. The mystery of the missing methhead brother drives the story. My favorite elements are spoilers but let just say the last 30 pages were not what I expected.

If you are looking for a redemption tale with a happy character arc this is not the book. Vlasaty opens the book in the gutter and that is the wave he surfs until the last page.   The best thing about the book is the pace, and some of the little details that made me laugh.

Like the chapter that ended with: 

"I kiss my fists and Nicky tells me to go fuck myself and we walk into the dark building. Laughing it up like everything's good and cool and happy. Like we're not about to walk into a dark and dirty crack house and face some unknown shit.

Like everything isn't terrible."


I laughed out loud when I looked and the next page and the chapter was titled "Everything is Terrible."

So are there negatives here? Very little. I think the things I didn't like are personal to me and won't affect all readers.  The narrative is first-person and which is my least favorite form of tense in part because it takes me out of the book. I assume the storyteller will survive to tell the story and I wonder constantly why and how they are telling the story. I will say the longer the book goes and I get lost in the story I think about it less. That is 'a me thing'. Speaking of me things.

The other thing is not Vlasaty's fault but the last book I read was a science book so all the character's dialogue with "Whatevers" and excessive "fuckings" and "shits" were correct but took me a few pages to settle into.

This is a fun book for crime readers who like stories vivid, visceral, and ugly enough to make you happy you don't live in the world of the book. That makes it my jam. This book would make a great film and is out there for crime readers who think the classics are too clean.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Book Review: Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth by Avi Loeb

 

 


 Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth by Avi Loeb
 Hardcover, 240 pages
Expected publication: January 26th 2021 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 
 
Why study the universe without a sense of wonder and humility at all? Why are those two things so important?   Scientists and researchers that peer out into the cosmic vastness of space can’t do it without wonder. For me, I can’t look at the night sky without those two things. I know we might as well be a frog in well there is so little we can see in our tiny little window to the universe. How can you not wonder or feel humbled?

One of my passions besides Horror and Science Fiction is space and astronomy.  I listen weekly to several astronomy podcasts and constantly searching for videos on various topics related to that passion. Over the last few years, one of the voices that cut through for me was Avi Loeb.

I know it seems silly to say about an astronomer but bravery comes to mind when I think of his sense of wonder. He is not afraid to speculate or think wild or outside the box ideas. He is still a scientist so through a slew of papers over the years he has backed up those ideas.

A few years ago he stepped out into the media spotlight with one of those ideas. This was after Oumuamua the interstellar object was discovered racing through our solar system. Loeb pointed out that it was most likely a piece of technology.  So, you see that is a huge deal because that would be proof that intelligent extraterrestrial life was indeed out there. They may have lived and died millions of years ago, and this object may have traveled long after it was gone or maybe it is a scout it is hard to say but one of the points of this book is we should try and find out.

I know people were hoping that a flying saucer would land on the lawn of the White House but the truth is much more likely to be something less splashy. Look I am not the astronomer, I don’t have to choose my words as carefully when you look at what Oumuamua did it is pretty fucking rad.  This object came on a path from above turned at an incredible speed through changed directions when the orbit of Mars and out past Saturn in a totally different direction.

“instructive to view things from ‘Oumuamua’s vantage point. From that object’s perspective, it was at rest and our solar system slammed into it. Or, in a way that works both metaphorically and, maybe, literally, perhaps ‘Oumuamua was like a buoy resting in the expanse of the universe, and our solar system was like a ship that ran into it at high speed.”

Almost no one besides Loeb in the academic community has even considered the idea of thinking like Oumuamua.   It is a simple thing but it shows a willingness to think about this object in new ways. What kind of arrogance does it take to see something like this and assume that we know what it is already.

What Loeb points out several ways in this book is that scientists afraid to admit the unconventional conclusion are bending over backward to try and explain how this happened naturally. The cool thing about this book is it tells Loeb’s story in parallel with the story and science of Oumuamua. Going from the small farm he grew up on to doing astronomy at Harvard we get to understand the person at the center of this story. We can see why Loeb would be the one raising the flag for this discovery.

It is that, a discovery.  No one debates that but the debate is this. Did the discovery of Oumuamua show us the answer to one of the questions humanity has struggled with since we have had written language?

Loeb makes a really great case yes Oumuamua is one of the greatest discoveries in human history, the funny part is most don’t see it that way. We only had a few months as a species to observe Oumuamua, but that doesn’t mean we might not get another chance, and more importantly, if we open our minds and bet on Oumuamua being alien technology we can look with fresh eyes at the data we have.

More importantly towards the end of the book, Loeb explains how and why this species hell-bent on self-destruction through nuclear weapons and human-directed climate change need to make this bet now.

“A more ambitious bet would be to learn from what we imagine a more mature civilization might have attempted. To take the small scientific leap and allow the possibility ‘Oumuamua was extraterrestrial technology is to give humanity the small nudge toward thinking like a civilization that could have left a lightsail buoy for our solar system to run into. It is to nudge us not just to imagine alien  spacecraft  but  to  contemplate  the  construction  of  our  own  such craft.”

Oumuamua can and should be the call to this species to think like earthlings and mature. Yeah, I loved this book and I am happy to say I will have Professor Loeb on my podcast soon. Pre-order this book and look out for the interview.
 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Book Review: Vagabonds by Hau Jingfang (Translated by Ken Liu)


 

Vagabonds by Hau Jingfang (Translated by Ken Liu)

Hardcover, 640 pages

Published April 14th 2020 by Gallery / Saga Press

 

This is one of those novels that grew on me as I reflected on it and as I learned about the author behind it. I am starting to think also that a sub-genre seems to be developing, that is novels influenced by Leguin’s anarchist Sci-fi masterpiece The Dispossessed. Unlike Carrie Vaughn’s PKD award-winning novel Bannerless (for one example) I would not say this novel shares the radical left political stances.

The common DNA Vagabonds shares with Leguin’s classic is a character caught between two worlds. Both novels share a sociological and anthropological feel. These are novels that could be studied for years to come because they were written by women reflecting on the systems they were living in.  In the case of Vagabonds, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the author is Chinese, and perhaps too much will be read into this.

With the undeniable success of The Three-Body Problem trilogy, it was not surprising that Ken Liu would be called upon to translate more works. Two short story collections followed and last year Chen Qiufan’s amazing Waste Tide.  I am super thankful for Liu’s work in this field as I have enjoyed the window into Chinese Sci-fi and it is clear that there is a diversity to the entries.

 Vagabonds is Sci-Fi in that it takes place centuries in the future and in part on Mars but I am sure the literary tone and the lack of action may turn off some readers. If you look at the negative reviews many of them say more social science than sci-fi. This novel is about Luo Ying who was born on Mars traveled to earth for a few years and returned to her home planet. In this sense, it would be totally fair to compare these books and even refer to it as the Chinese Dispossessed.

Hau Jingfang is famous in China but not primarily as an award-winning Science Fiction author. Trained in Astrophysics and as an economist, she is known mostly for her educational reforms. Between producing science fiction films, she is helping open schools in rural parts of China that had no such thing before. While much of her education came in the west it seems that time going back and forth between cultures inspired this novel.

Taking place a few centuries from now Mars and Earth are just coming out of an extended cold war which saw the worlds cut off from each other Luo Ying is the granddaughter of the Martian prime minister and spent five years learning about the differences between the ways of life.

On page 179 “Now that she had lived in both worlds, she wasn’t sure which chains were heavier: the system that ensured everyone had no more and no less than they needed, or the poverty that resulted from the struggle for survival. But she did know that all humans loved freedom, and the more their ways of life differed the more fundamental commonality prevailed.

Freedom! Life is art, and the nature of art is freedom.”

The novel has a wide cast of characters from two pilots who live on a ship transport supplies and people back and forth between worlds, miners, filmmakers, and revolutionaries using a play to forward their ideas. That last element reminded me of the 50s post-apocalypse novel Doomsday Morning by CL Moore. This aspect was seen through the eyes of an Earth filmmaker Eko who has followed his favorite director who ended up dying on Mars.

This novel is written with a bit of literary surrealism the details Jingfang chooses to describe and describe keep this novel from becoming a hard sci-fi experience. Thus it has more of a Mars as analogy feel that is more PKD’s Martian Time-Slip than Kim Robinson’s Mars trilogy. There is no mention of what nations formed the Mars colonies that is left to the reader’s imagination but suggest is heavily implied with passages like this…

“When the city was first founded, resources were so scarce that everyone lived in dormitories. Only the most accomplished researchers could build their own houses, and the sizes of the houses were determined by their research results. The policy was reasonable at first, but after thirty years it was deeply flawed. If someone was unlucky and didn’t produce any practical applications, then they would die in a dormitory.”


 While the knee-jerk reaction might be to see Mars as socialist China and Earth as America, I don’t think there is a simplistic 1 to 1 interpretation. Sure, Earth in the 24th century is an over-populated capitalist mess suffering under the weight of ecological destruction. There is something like democracy but it is deeply flawed.  On paper, China claims to be a democratic republic while at the same suffering at the hands of capitalism by feeding its massive population by racing to the bottom with expansive and cheap labor everywhere.

Honestly, Mars in the novel can’t be really compared to either. It is basically one city; the population is so small to be compared to either the U.S. or China. The fact is the author is being critical of elements of both countries in this analogy.


It would be fairly typical for western readers to assume that Chinese science fiction writers are automatically condemning the Chinese system. That they must be using the metaphor of genre to protest their conditions. That assumes these novels view our western way of life as a functioning democracy is something to strive for. The egotism behind this notion can’t be understated, think about how Trumpism and America looks from the outside. Not great.

None the less this book was written a decade ago by a young Chinese author who is an idealist. Vagabonds is not anti-Chinese in fact it seems very much to be a novel about what it means to be a young person raised on those ideals. Often confused by how those ideals are put into practice. One of the key Relationships of the book is our main character Lua Ying whose spends much of the book trying to figure out if her grandfather the Martian leader is or is not a dictator?

The book is also not exactly patriotic either, there is a left interpretation but it is not as radical a voice as even Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide.  And not nearly as radical left as many western Science fiction authors.

This novel is not for everyone as it is long and slow, but I found it incredible for a couple of reasons. The unique point of view that the author brings to the table is clear on every page. I had expectations and the novel dashed most of them. The challenge of this book is the length and pace. If you need constant weirdness or action from your science fiction then this might not be for you. That social science is very much a science and this novel is very much that kind of science fiction. Was it perfect? It was a little long, and some of the messages didn’t feel great to me, but I am super happy to hear this voice so I leaning towards this being a great novel that is not for everyone.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Book Review: Exploring Dark Short Fiction #5: A Primer to Han Song Edited by Eric J. Guignard


 

Exploring Dark Short Fiction #5: A Primer to Han Song 

Edited by Eric J. Guignard, 

Written by Han Song, Michael A. Arnzen (contributor), 

Michelle Prebich (Illustrator), 

Nathaniel Isaacson (Translator)

Paperback 222 pages
Published September 2020 by Dark Moon Books

 

There are very few things that are consistently awesome. No band is without a bad record, no director without a stinker. So far Eric and his Dark Moon imprint are a perfect five for five with this series of collections 'Exploring Dark fiction'. That said this is my favorite so far for lots of reasons I will explain.

In the previous editions I had read maybe one thing by the author and was familiar to a degree with his work by reputation. I have read quite a bit of Chinese science fiction and genre, as that line is blurred much more in China. That said this is my first experience with Han Song who did not appear in Invisible Planets the first of Ken Liu's anthology of Chinese Translations. He appeared in Broken Stars the second of that series which is still on my list to read.

This series always comes with pretty illustrations and commentary on each story by Professor Michael Arnzen. All are excellent non-fictional commentaries. The author interview provides insight but Han Song's own essay 'Sending Chinese Science Fiction Overseas' is a highlight. He talks about several novels and works of scholarship I wish were translated.

So who is Han Song? He is an award-winning Chinese science fiction author and considered to be one of their three most important voices.  He is a journalist who has had his fiction censored by the Chinese government for being too dark as in the case with his early story 'Gravestone of the Universe' that was published in 1991 in a Taiwanese magazine. In China he has published nine novels and almost as many short story collections.

I can't speak to his novels, as I am judging his work by six short stories, I know I am more willingly to experiment with short fiction, I think it is important to point out this is a small sample size. The vibe I am getting reminds me of Brian Evenson's short fiction. That is no small piece of praise as Evenson's last collection just won the World Fantasy Award and I consider him to be the best author of dark short fiction since Clive Barker.

Han Song's style has the same surreal feel and zero fucks given for convention or expectation. These stories don't have to access reality as we know it. Given that Song was censored early in his career you can see he embraces the genre's ability to subvert conformity and repression. It is not a shock that this author struggled with censorship. I wondered as I read this if the translators were able restore any of this lost material?

All six stories were good, but the two that stood out for me were 'Transformation Subway' and 'Fear of Seeing.' Both were dark surreal stories. 'Transformation Subway' was a haunting tale about a subway train that keeps going endlessly through a dark tunnel never stopping or even seeing a station in passing. Once Zhou the main character tries to escape by climbing to the other cars he discovers something more horrible. This surreal tale plays with time, cosmic dread, and is metaphoric nightmare. The situation reflects a dark mirror on human behavior and is probably a commentary on Chinese culture that I am not able to gleam.

'The Fear of Seeing' is the story of parents whose child is born with eight eyes. It is the most traditional horror tale, but it is still a surreal trip. The parents who I don't remember ever being given a name try to love and relate to this freakish child of theirs. It is important that written in 3rd person, if it was in first we would be to connected. A little space gives us room to digest at distance how painful and weird this would be for the parents. I got the sense the idea is how weird and isolating it would feel to have wide open eyes and be able to see more than the people around you. A negative of being a creative free thinker in a stifling society. I don't maybe I reading too much into it.

The fiction in this entire series is great but this is my favorite yet. Han Song is incredible and the essay is something Sci-fi academics are dying for. In the movement for more international voices in genre this book is a must read.


Monday, November 9, 2020

Book Review: The Living Dead by George A. Romero, Daniel Kraus (Podcast Interview with Kraus coming soon!)

 

The Living Dead by George A. Romero, Daniel Kraus
Hardcover, 656 pages
Published August 4th 2020 by Tor Books

 

 Some tasks you just can’t win, no matter what you do. Being Peyton Manning’s back-up Quarterback when he was with the Colts, being the guy at the club who turns on the lights after Slayer’s third encore are two things that come to mind. Right up would be finishing the first and last novel of a beloved filmmaker like George Romero. That was the mission given to a long time Romero superfan Daniel Kraus. As he said himself if he got right everyone would praise George and if he got it wrong the pitchforks were coming to Chicago to blame him.

First things first you have to give Romero’s estate absolute credit for finding the perfect human being out of 7 billion overpopulating this planet to finish this vision. While not a super fan of Romero like Kraus The Dead films were super important to me as a Fangoria obsessed young kid in the late 80s. I also followed Romero's attempts over 20 years to make a fourth Dead film.

Land of the Dead happened in the early 21st century but everyone knew Romero had written several versions of Twilight of the Dead the title was often teased to us.  While he got to write and direct a second trilogy before his death that was not the end of the story. Kraus who would know better than I says that Day of the Dead released in 1985 tells the last cinematic story in the Romero Zombie Universe. The RZU as I am going to call it for the rest of this review now includes The Living Dead, so cinematic universe won’t cut it.

Romero ignored the era each film was filmed in thinking of the story’s timeline, and Kraus has too. This is all one Romero universe, one story of a single zombie apocalypse. It was clear from statements Romero made late in life that he wanted to write this novel for two main purposes. He seemed to want to have the scope he never had the budget for and most importantly to close the loop and end the story.  The Living Dead goes the deepest in the timeline. In the narrative this novel journeys from day one to fifteen years after there was no room left in hell.  Kraus suggests the best order of reading and watching to follow the timeline. (In my upcoming podcast interview)

When I interviewed Kraus for the podcast I thanked him for not breathing fresh air into the Zombie genre and he smiled and thanked me.  He and I agree “enough with the zombies already”, and while fresh air was welcome in a book like this year’s Survivor Song by Paul Tremblay that was not the mission here.

This book feels like a Romero story, that is amazing when you consider that while there was a rough outline and 1/3 of the book written it was not a straight line. It was fragmented and most of it was in the third act, with pieces scattered. It was clear that scenes on the Olympia aircraft carrier were well researched but Romero didn’t leave that research behind.

Many of the reviews and discussion of this book are forgetting that first crucial point, so I will repeat myself, what an impossible task Daniel Kraus had. The fact that this book exists requires a series of unlikely accidents. The fact that a talented author whose first movie was Night of The Living Dead went to high school with Romero’s future manager is just one of those. Kraus showed reverence, respect, and tenacity that probably no one else would show.

700 words into this review and I have not talked about the story. Sorry about that. The story shares a structure with my favorite Science Fiction novel John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. Unlike the USA trilogy that inspired Brunner, this story eventually weaves together.

If that seems like a spoiler, I got to say I don’t think anything in the first two acts can be ruined.  None the less if you are worried stop reading and come back because we are going to go deep on the themes here.

Still with me? The Living Dead weaves the narrative around the Dead timeline.  In this book, we see what might be the first zombie, and it happens right here in San Diego. I think we will have to petition for a plaque or something on the wall there at the Medical Examiner’s office.  This happens in a storyline featuring Luis and Charlie who work in the morgue. These two characters are the ones that broke my heart the most.  As the chaos, many of the best moments happen to and around these characters from intense scares to reflective moments when Charlie years down the line waits in hospice to go zombie. She wonders if she failed a test when the dead first rose in front of her. It is those subtle moments that interested Romero and Kraus doesn’t throw blood and guts at us. In fact, some of the most bloody moments survive from Romero’s early drafts.  

The storyline that shows the most massive scope is the story of the Olympia aircraft carrier which is the size of a city and deals with an outbreak. This like many of the storylines could have been a film or novel on its own. This storyline provides the Mrs.Carmody-like  character and a religious reaction a theme that was important to Romero.

The themes are all there, the dangers of technology, consumerism, mistrust, and dehumanization.  The Dead standing in for the working class and oppressed. While not as on the nose as some of the films Kraus weaves all of it in subtle moments throughout.  The last act shows Kraus/Romero’s attempt to envision what a Utopia in this context looks like.

Another strength was the character of Etta Hoffman, a character with mild form Autism (representation matters!) who keeps track of numbers, records, and books as best she can from D.C. in the early days.

“Housewives forming covens as a means of survival. Stopgap police forces burning citizens to contain what they stubbornly believed was a biological agent. A young man encouraged by the chaos to play out delusions of vampirism. A troupe of ren-fair motorcyclists who believed their Arthurian code could withstand any strain. A paraplegic man trapped indoors, tortured by his helper monkey, begging her to send help. Such strange tales and Hoffmann read them over and over. One day they might remind us who we used to be, and who we tried to be, and that recollection could save the world.”

The thesis of this book and the message is subtle throughout the book but there were to moments and with perfect symmetry, the first was written by Kraus.

“People, zombies – we’re all dying.” He said gently. “Here’s what we need to accept. We’re smart zombies as much as they are dumb humans. Any second now, those two lines are going to converge, and us and them will be exactly the same. Body and soul back together. I can feel it. The Chief can feel it all of Slowtown can feel it.”

We are no different. Romero tried to remind us over and over that we are them, that the line is paper-thin between the hungry consumers mindlessly ending the world slowly and the zombies.
George’s words that form the thesis end the book, they end the saga and they are perfect. Do you want to know what those words are? Sit your ass down and read it.