Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Book Review: Exploring Dark Short Fiction #4: A Primer to Jeffrey Ford

Exploring Dark Short Fiction #4: A Primer to Jeffrey Ford

by Jeffrey Ford, Michael Arnzen, Eric J. Guignard

Paperback, 234 pages

Published September 2019 by Dark Moon Books

I am always excited to see a book of this series in my mailbox, the first three books in this series confirmed to me Eric Guignard was really on to an excellent format to highlight authors. I trust Guinard to find the right authors for this series but let me make a few suggestions for who I think would be great in this series. John Shirley, Maurice Broddus, Cody Goodfellow, Lisa Morton, Silvia Moreno Garcia...Damn it I wish every author could get this treatment and this one of the best things I can say about this series. I mean it does such a wonderful job of highlighting an author and showing many sides of their skills. I really do wish every writer could get this kind of treatment. What do I mean by this treatment?

• Six short stories.

• Author interview.

• Complete bibliography.

• Academic commentary on each story by Michael Arnzen, PhD.

It is not just the variety of stories by each author in the series which are all carefully chosen by Guinard. Ford delivers six traditional dark fiction stories that are by themselves a powerful example of excellent writing. Add to it that you have the Arnzen commentary. The interview gives more personal insight compared to the academic insight of Arnzen. Now that we have four books in this series I could see this series being used for a teaching prompt and you bet your ass it would be a great way to teach the art of the horror short story.

As for Jeffery Ford, he comes the apology, I can't say I have read more a short story or two before. Not sure why he had not caught on with me before. That said is why this series exists, because I got a great introduction to a fantastic author. All six stories were well written and it is clear that Ford is an excellent writer whose influences go far beyond the genre ghetto. He has a great style that feels classical at times, conversational at other times.

My favorite stories were Boatman's Holiday and The Night Whiskey. That said I really loved the Japanese setting of the opening story. The most powerful piece by a country mile was the Boatman's Holiday. Hell and the river Styx is a really tricky subject to write about. There is a balance between not being dark enough and being goofy that is really hard to strike. There is a dark beauty to this piece that is worth the whole book. I loved every word that dripped with vivid humidity and pain. Ford gave the Boatman and the setting of Styx a painful reality and I loved it.

The Night Whiskey showed Ford's skill for characters. Boatman's holiday and A Natural History of Autumn showed off his ability to use the setting. As this series tends to do there is a little bit to learn about every aspect of the horror short story. The book succeeds in the sense that I am now primed to read more Jeffery Ford and it will happen.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Book Review: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

Paperback, 288 pages

Published March 14th 2005 by Hodder & Stoughton (first published April 1966)

Hugo Award for Best Novel (1967)

Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel (1966)

Prometheus Hall of Fame Award (1983)

In my journey of reading all the Hugo winners for best novel in the '60s for the podcast, I have read some amazing and terrible books. This is my third Heinlein book. I read many Heinlein books in the '90s when I was really discovering Science Fiction and like everyone else, I loved his work and considered him a master of the genre. Somehow I never read this one before. Strange because it is a little more up my alley than Stranger or some of the others I read at the time.

I am a fan of revolutionary science fiction and certainly, Heinlein is not the only author to discuss ideas of Anarchism, in fact, I have a shelf on good reads just for Anarchist themed Sci-fi. Authors ranging from L.Ron Hubbard in the Final Blackout (1940)to Leguin's Dispossessed and Always Coming Home. The Moon is Harsh Mistress is not an anarchist novel but it plays with ideas of what Heinlein's stand-in character called "Rational Anarchism" which is basically his on brand libertarianism. We need government only because people are not ready to live without it.

The story of a late 21st-century moon colony that has become somewhat of a breadbasket for post-nuclear earth. In many ways, the revolution that is at the center of this novel kinda glorifies and mirrors the US revolution. While this looks and feels awfully familiar to some of the events in PKD's Time out of Joint Heinlein is more focused on deepening and world-building the lunar colony. For that reason, I would say the novels are not too similar.

Heinlein packs the books with neat ideas and it is well thought-out for the time. Some of Heinlein's ideas of poly-marriages are introduced with cringe-worthy awkwardness based on the society being dominated by more men than women. Lunar culture has its own version of the language that lacks certain connecting words like the Russian language, this is a result of how ethically and culturally diverse the Moon is. Cool idea but it does make for some awkward moments reading.

The revolution in the book is made possible by a small cell anchored by an AI who runs much of the colony. This is a very forward-thinking concept for 1966. As a work of science fiction, I wish a tad bit more attention was paid to how the science of the Moon colony worked. There were times that this could have been set on an island and nothing would be lost. RAH was inconsistent about keeping track of this aspect.

I enjoyed that the book explored issues. I didn't enjoy the book as much as some books I read in the past, and my initial reaction was negative. I will say this that the more I thought about the book the more it grew on me. Mostly because I spent a lot of time thinking about the ideas long after I finished reading it. I couldn't go higher than three stars. There are still some flaws for me with the characters and the views expressed. Heinlein is offering some new political ideas but is not really looking in deep to the aftermath of this transformation. Ultimately I can live with that as a reader.

I liked it better than Stranger in a Strange Land and I certainly agree with more of the politics with this than Starship Troopers. Yeah, let's talk about that for a moment. How in the hell is this written by the same right-wing pro-war hawk that wrote Starship Troopers? It makes no sense. That said it should make for an interesting podcast. Stay tuned...

Dickheads Podcast episode coming soon!

Book Review: Venus Plus X by Theodore Stugeon

Venus Plus X by Theodore Sturgeon

Paperback, 224 pages

Published October 5th 1999 by Vintage (first published 1960)

Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (1961)

I read this book in part because I heard it came in second in the voting for the Hugo's in 1960. Losing to Canticle for Lebowitz is no shame. When I saw the concept I was interested to see how a straight cis gender sci-fi writer of 60 years ago handled this topic. In many ways, this book very forward-thinking especially when you consider that it was written before the Women's rights movement.

Sturgeon is a giant of 20th-century science fiction and I certainly have enjoyed his work before. The story follows Charlie Johns your typical 60's man who is pulled through time travel into the far future. Venus Plus X is a narrative split between two times and two societies. One is the world as we knew it in 1960 and the is Lodem a far future Utopia where gender, war, and hunger are things of the past. It is exciting that this book views so many of our civilization's problems to the dynamic created by gender and gender inequality.

At first, I was annoyed that all the characters in Lodem were giving the He/him pronoun but 72 pages Sturgeon does address this issue pointing out that the pronoun confusion is a result of the point of view character Charlie being wrong. "The personal pronoun-there was only one! In Ledom was like that; personal without gender. That Charlie had told himself it was "He" was Charlie's own mistake."

That is pretty forward-thinking for a book written in 1960 and it is clear several times no matter how clumsy TS has tried to write a feminist book. “It's a team, that's what I mean. There's a lot of yammering going on about the women taking over. They're not taking over. They're moving in.” That is not all “The patrists poison themselves. The matrists tend to decay, which is merely another kind of poison.”

It is a mixed bag, in some ways better than I expected but I didn't enjoy the story much. The 1960's storyline is important to the story but it takes so long to get there that it just feels a diversion from the good stuff. Those parts of the story were boring to me and didn't hook me. I just wanted to get back to Lodem parts of the story. The functions of this society and how even the biology works presents lots of interesting dynamics

As a piece of progressive old school science fiction, I am glad I read to add to my knowledge of the genre. I respect Sturgeon for what he was trying to do, but I can't help compare it to the book it lost the Hugo award to. Canticle for Lebowitz holds up very well and doesn't seem dated at all. This one is a completion recommendation at best. Sci-fi readers who are interested in genre works that focus on gender like Left Hand of Darkness must read this one. I liked but did not love this one.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Book Review: The Chain by Adrian McKinty

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

Hardcover, 357 pages

Published July 2019 by Mulholland Books

Well I had not read a crime thriller in awhile and this book came with high praise on twitter from Stephen King and Don Winslow, I put a hold on at the library knowing nothing about the plot. At first, when the plot was quickly revealed I was not sure I would enjoy this but I was very interested in how the story was structured so I kept reading.

I am glad I did, when you have spent the majority of the year reading the fucking weirdest books of the 60's science fiction new wave it collars a book like this. This felt like a very mainstream thriller to me. That is more a result of the reading pattern I have this year. I kept waiting for time loops, or androids copies to show up and that is on me. While The Chain is not as focused on gender themes as as say Gone Girl, this intense crime thriller fits nicely with that book or the recent novels of Sarah Pinborough.

The novel is anchored in a strong female lead in Rachel but the vulnerability of the family is at the heart of this novel. The concept follows a dark web network that is called The Chain. Your child has been kidnapped, not only do you have to pay the ransom but you are responsible for taking the next kid and keeping the cycle going. The novel opens on the kidnapping of Kylie the young daughter of a divorced cancer survivor who is about to start her first year as a philosophy professor. Much of the suspense and tension builds from the concept of what would you do to protect your child.

I will try to do this without spoilers but it should not be too much of a surprise that the novel eventually looks into the lives of the people behind the chain. The structure of the novel was the most interesting thing to me. The novel has two distinct parts and where the story is devided and and at the half way mark it appears that the story could end. I like how the story is organized, and I think the story is well told for the most part. I can see why crime thriller readers will eat up this concept. It would make a great movie with the right director and cast.

That said there were a few times I wish McKinty had slowed it down just a bit. A few characters like a MIT professor in the second half comes in and out a little to fast for me. There was also a single sentance that was so cheezy in the final 20 pages that made me laugh. Marty Rachel's ex actually points out the window and says basically "Hey is that my wife out there running in the show." A book published at this level should have an editor say "hey show don't tell the dude."

Over all, I recommend this for thriller readers and honestly, I read this in two days, it is a quick read for sure. I didn't love this but I did really like it.

Podcast/ Book Review: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

Paperback, SF Masterworks, 231 pages

Published 2010 by Gollancz (first published January 1965)

Re-read this one for the next episode of Dickheads, I consider this to be one of PKD's best novels, but I admit the first time much of it went over my head, not this time. I feel like I understood what was happening much clearer than 15 years ago. Podcast review coming up soon. For thoughts listen to the podcast...

What'll it be? Can-D or Chew-Z? Both are quite a trip but watch out for the side effects.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is considered one of the MUST read novels in the PKD library. Here the DickHeads along with special guest J. David Osborne find out for themselves if this is true or not. Plus: Jailbreaking Twitter. Willy Eldritch and the Chew-Z factory. And a stigmata fleshlight.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Book Review: Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

Hardcover, 800 pages

Published July 2019 by Del Rey Books

It is clear when you dead-lift this massive hardcover for the first time that Wendig was trying to write a book that would feel like McCammon's Swan Song or King's The Stand. He admits as much in the acknowledgements so the comparisons are unavoidable. It is unfortunate in my opinion because I enjoyed this book and experience but it was anchored to a big of unrealistic expectations. There are very few books that I think should be 800 pages. Those two classics are in rare territory. I personally am not a huge fan of the massive epic 20-pound books. I feel most stories don't need to be bloated to that kind of length. So I admit to that bias right at the front.

As much as I liked this novel it didn't quite feel as epic as those other novels. Wanderers while an end of the world novel has a very tight character-based focus. The president and world leaders are not ignored but they are not characters. They are mentioned but smartly Wendig keeps that story off-screen to focus on the characters. At the center of the novel is a cast of characters who are connected to a group of people who mysteriously begin to sleep walk. They can't be stopped, or harmed. Their walk appears to supernatural and nothing can stop them.

The POV shifts mostly between Shana whose sister is a walker, and Benji who is a former CDC scientist recruited by AI Black Swan that is using advanced predictive technology to respond to the situation. There is also Pete an aging rock star, Matthew a right religious radio talk show pastor, and few others.

The narrative and structure in the first half will have you wondering why anyone would compare to the Stand. The Sleepwalkers present a mystery that is very different more in common with say the Leftovers than Swan Song. Without spoiling the mystery the answers come about 400 pages into the book. I couldn't help feeling that would have made a great cliffhanger/ reveal to end a part one of two. I really enjoyed this book but I couldn't help feeling that there were two separate books here. If we as readers got to the reveal and had to wait a year for the conclusion it could have provided suspense and discussion.

As it stands Wanderers is a great read. The characters are engaging and well written. The mystery fills the first half with questions that are answered with well-woven science fiction and horror elements. It combines all the things that make a Wendig book worth reading, realistic character dynamics, well-researched science and executed structure. So before I get into spoilers let just say that if you are up for a 800 epic this one is a very worth reading.

The Stand holds up today but it is very much a product of the time when it was written. Wanderers is a very modern work of speculative messaging. Some of the best moments of Wendig reflecting his dark mirror on America are found in subtle chapter intros that are fictional tweets, tumblr posts or quotes from cable news anchors. Inside the narrative, Wendig never sacrifices the story to message but it is there for the savvy reader. If you don't want a message with your end of the world story relax because you can just ride with it fine.

SPOILERS:

The comparisons to the Stand are fair mostly in the second half of the novel. It is revealed that the long journey the sleepwalkers are taking is ending up in Colorado where they will ride out the plague killing off the human race. That said the first half is very different, and the source of the plague is quite modern and different. The source of the plague is a twist inside of twist. Black Swan the super computer AI is revealing to be saving a small number of the human race by turning them into Sleepwalkers using Nano-tech. Towards the end, it is revealed that he also unleashed the plague and the novel is revealed to be Cli-fi. I liked these twists and thought it gave a very modern feel to the book.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Book Review: Caves of Steel by Issac Asimov

Caves of Steel by Issac Asimov

Mass Market Paperback, 12th Edition, 206 pages

Published 1997 by Voyager (first published February 1954)

Retro Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (2004)

I read this series of novels decades ago, but decided now was the time to re-read them. As a grown-up reader of sci-fi Asimov is not really on the top of my list but growing up he was my first sci-fi love. The Caves of Steel is an Asimovian spin on the detective noir that introduces the characters of Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw. They will be the main characters of three more books that take place in the same universe but hundreds of years before the Foundation series. While Asimov spent much of his career exploring the artificial human the Baley and Olivaw books are not only some of his best robot novels but some of his best Asimov novels period, end of story.

Part of the charm is the simple premise, but for a novel written in 1954 it has fantastic sci-fi world-building. That is not a surprise for Asimov readers, his world-building has never been a problem. It is at the core of this story because the massive over-populated earth which has turned to crowded domed cities is constantly in conflict with the Spacers, the people spread over 50 worlds with an economy that depends on robot labor. What helps this stand apart from the other books in the Asimov catalog are the characters. That aspect is often a weaker part of Asimov stories.

Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw are both excellent characters and their interplay is very rewarding to follow. Without trying to give away the many twists and turns in the book I will say that COS works before the human drama parallels the galactic conflict. We have seen plenty of cop movies and books where two partners are thrown together and hate each other. Of course they grown to understand each other. In this case, the cops in question are a human Baley and Olivaw a robot. The understanding is not so simple. It is a trope we have seen, but remember this book is 70 years old.

Speaking of the age of this book, the one real bummer of this novel is how women are depicted. Made more complicated by the fact that Alec Lee's biography Astounding pointed out the fact that Asimov while a genius writer was a creep with women in this era. Baley's wife in this novel is a poorly conceived and offensive character that will have you cringing as you read it. It is not OK for any era.

This does really hurt the book for me, it lost a star in my rating entirely for that one flaw. I could have looked past it if it also didn't affect the plot, sadly it did. That said the majority of the themes and the story are very, very strong. It is also a great introduction to a series. This series certainly could be updated with a few changes and work every bit as it did all those years ago.

I listened to the audiobook, and intend to read the next two at some point. The performances were good but I am not a big audiobook person.