Monday, August 22, 2011

Book Review: Flashback Dan Simmons

Flashback by Dan Simmons
560 pages
Little Brown and Company

Dan Simmons is a brilliant novelist, and perhaps one of the greatest genre authors working today. The intelligence and versatility he has show in sprawling epics such as Carrion Comfort(A vampire horror novel) Hyperion (far future hard sci-fi) to historical epics like Black Hills is amazing. I can't state enough the level of respect I have for the writer and the novels he has written. That being said I have mixed feelings about his most recent Science Fiction novel Flashback.
Flashback is a long hard boiled mystery set deeply in the apocalypse dystopia genre that blurs the line between Science Fiction and Horror.

Speaking with the Agony Column podcast Simmons went as far as to say he didn't think of it as Sci-fi, He might not like the analogy but the plot and the basic concept also had a bit of a cyperpunk feel. The dystopia warning novel is a well respected genre that critics often elevate out of the genre ghetto and Simmons seemed intent on writing a modern Alas Babylon or Brave New World. A huge number of Americans believe our country is going down the wrong path and Flashback is a Simmons exploring that concept to it's worst possible conclusion.

The plot is great, and expansion of a Simmons novella which was written when Simmons had somewhat different political views. Nick Bottom is a detective, he is private now since his addiction to a drug called Flashback has kept him from the force. Flashback causes the user to to re-live in a near catatonic state the happiest moments of their lives for a one dollar a minute, the really bad part is 87% of America is addicted to it. The country is falling apart, Texas is a separate nation, Mexico controls the southwest, and Islam is taking over the world.

Nick Bottom is hired by a Japanese millionaire to investigate the murder of his son on american soil. He tries to solve the mystery by using Flashback and working with one of the businessman's personal ninja bodyguards. The relationship between Bottom and the Japanese body guard Sato is one of the highlights of the novel.
So what did I think of the novel? Well I read the whole thing, and I read it fast, Simmons is of course a skilled writer, so in his hands I had a enjoyable read in many ways. In the end however I cannot recommend this novel. It's not just because of the politics, which are entirely loony right wing nonsense. As the author of a novel called “The Vegan Revolution...With Zombies,” I know a thing or two about writing political novels, and certainly have read novels I didn't agree with before, and even liked a few of them. When I wrote Vegan Rev. I was very concerned that the story, and the characters came first, that I would not bend the novel to fit my views. That being said that novel was a satire. I think Simmons might have been better off fully inserting his tongue in his cheek.

While not as transparent and ideologically consumed as Crichton's State of Fear, that book was simply unreadble. Simmons wore his heart so much on his sleeve that he took his eye off the basic plot construction and prose that have made him a giant in the field. I honestly think it is Simmons weakest novel. Parts of the mystery are conveniently are withheld for no logical reason, cringe worthy right wing inter dialogues distract from the pace of the story, and the history of the future take on insanely unrealistic nature to fit Simmons's views. That's his right, it's his novel, the problem for this reader is that some of those future histories were so ludicrous it took me out of the novel. In a satire sure, but this was not a satire. The worst example is a off handed comment about the mayor of NY being the Imam of the mosque, my memory might be off but he may even be the the vice president too. You see just at the edge of this novel is a creeping fear of that the Arabs are going to take over the world.

In that same Agony column interview Simmons claims that he is a political centerist and he expects the book to anger readers both on the right and left. No way, this book is a right wing nut-fest only separated from Glen Beck's chalk board rants by the author's sharp story telling skills(which in my opinion have never been more dull). In 2006 Simmons created a shitstorm by publishing an essay on his website called message from a Time Traveler, linked here( which many - myself included see as a racist far right call for war with the Arab world. Flashback is not only an extension of those ideas but he breaks lots of new ground. Bashing left wing intellectuals in general (and Ward Churchill specifically), left activists(who are just tattooed and pierced idiots), denying global warming, bashing global climate scientists, a world that sits back and allows a second holocaust of Jews and portraying the Japanese to be even more evil than a Hong Kong movie would dare. (After the Japanese treament of the Chinese in WW II, it's not shocking that a huge % of HK movies have Japanese villains, not sure what Simmons has against them)

I am glad Glen Beck is already off the air on Fox because I could really honestly see him loving and blurbing this novel. When I finished this novel it had me wondering what Simmons thinks about the recent Arab spring, where people in several Arab countries rose up on their own demanding freedom. Many are dying today fighting for freedom in Syria, Iran and Libya - that doesn't jive with the fear mongering peppered throughout this novel. The story it self is entertaining, but Simmons is not up to his usual high quality, unless you have exhausted your Dan Simmons novels I would suggest going further back in the catalog.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Book Review: The Five by Robert McCammon

The Five by Robert McCammon
Subterranean Press
520 pages

McCammon is the author several of my favorite novels. In the 80's he was one of the most popular horror writers riding the wave of Stephen King's massive popularity. While He was often compared to King, I have always felt McCammon was a superior novelist. Novels like Boy's Life, Mine or Swan's Song are near perfect tight novels that work like an engine firing on all cylinders.

In the last few years McCammon seemed to stray from the horror field, his novel output slowed and he turned to historical mysteries set in the early years of New York city. These books are thick, well researched and even though I bought them and they sit on my shelf they just didn't interest me enough to read them.

I first heard of McCammon's return to the modern setting like most when Stephen King said it was the best novel of the year and McCammon's best. Ok sold, and right to the top of the “To be read pile.” I'm glad I did, I might not agree that it is McCammon's best but it is one of the best novels I have read in some time.

The Five is the story of a struggling rock band who the novel is named after. They are strange group of people living the hard life trying to make it a go as a touring band. Shortly after the book starts the band starts to fall apart. After the manager and keyboardist admit to Nomad the band leader that they are done it looks like the band is over. After they finish the tour.

It's to bad because their new video for an anti-war ballad “When the storm breaks” is starting to get play. It also was noticed by a traumatized Iraq war sniper who is anything but a fan. That is when said sniper decides he wants to make sure those snot nosed rocker never finish their tour. This is where the novel about hard rockers becomes a thriller, or much like McCammon's classic novel 'Mine' a horror novel without one shred of supernatural tropes.

'Mine' was thriller about a mother and her kidnapped child, her struggle to get her child back. Of course when you read 'Mine' you get into the characters and story long before you realize there is a much deeper subtext. The Five is a thriller, and road novel about rock and roll but it's subtext comes to the surface about 375 pages into the book. At that point the message becomes a little heavy handed, but that doesn't matter one bit. McCammon is so skilled at pacing and characters that you are so invested in the story that you'll realize the subtext was peppered through out.

There is a moment when the message is pushed to the surface. But I liked it. The Five is a novel about the tapestry of Rock and roll, the universe of live music, what it all means. The Five works on many, many levels. It's a masterpiece written by a man who has a few of those. This book should have wide appeal and it's a crime that is not a a Number one bestseller.

Book Review: Should have killed the Kid by R. Frederick Hamilton

Should Have Killed The Kid by R. Frederick Hamilton
$12.95 Legume Man Books
300 pages

OK let me say off the bat that the marketing and exterior look of this book had me scratching my head. The cover is a pretty looking take on the Melbourne (Australia) skyline engulfed in flames. This where a good portion of the book takes place. That is not the curious part, inside the cover is four blurbs and I know that is far from weird. Except that two of the blurbs were straight up bad reviews that almost scared me out of reading the book. It was a free review book so I kept going. The book has no description to draw me in either, All it says on the back of the book is “Fuck...”

Which is what the main character says when faced with most unpleasant situations. This book is filled to the brim with very unpleasant situations, but if your a fan of good creepy unsettling horror fiction then that is what you are looking for. I am thinking that Legume Man thought your reading experience would be better served if you didn't have any clue what the plot was to spoil the surprises.

I am not sure I agree with that thinking, but reguard less it is an excellent horror novel, that builds amazing amounts of tension and suspense throughout. If you trust my opinion stop reading this review and just get your hands on the book. If you still need more convincing and think a little plot description is needed before you invest well read on.

Should have killed the Kid is a supernatural Apocalypse thriller which has both Lovecraftian vibe (without direct connection to the mythos) and an extreme horror feel. At first I thought of it as Stephen King's The Mist with A Quentin Tarantino structure, but after the first 100 pages the structure smoothes out into a linear fashion. The book is structured and patterned for maximum suspense that left me with only a few nitpicks.

The main character is named Dave, when we meet him he is hiding with a group of survivors after creatures referred to as the Claw of the Shadows have appeared over Australia and begun to erase humanity and it's vast civilization from the earth. So what makes Dave so interesting? The people hiding with him don't know it, but Dave caused the whole thing to happen.

The novel then takes us back to the time, when Dave failed to act on the a duty which would have prevented the whole thing from happening. Judging from the title you may have figured out that Dave was supposed to kill a child.

The more pure the heart of the sacrifice the more happy the claw of the shadow will be. So we are set up for an adventure to sacrafice the right kid, at the right place and end the mess.

This a excellent example of how independent publishing brings us interesting and original horror fiction. I am very happy I read this book, I think serious horror fans will like it. My only nitpicks are to do with the ending. Towards the end I lacked sympathy for the boy, and I thought the child Dave had to sacrafice could have had a little more dimensions to him. It would have made the ending more tense and suspensful. Also the book is set up for a sequel that I didn't really feel completely sold on.

Should Have Killed the kid was a pleasant surprise for me. I always say that great suspense novels feel like climbing a very tall unstable ladder. And that is what I felt like I was doing when I read this novel. Thumbs up.