Saturday, March 31, 2018

Book Review UBO by Steve Rasnic Tem

UBO by Steve Rasnic Tem

Paperback, 320 pages

Published February 2017 by Solaris

Literary Awards:

Bram Stoker Award Nominee for Best Novel (2017)

This book is not for everyone but it sure as hell was for me. Steve Rasnic Tem is a veteran of the horror field. He is a past winner of the Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy Awards. There is no doubting his skill. What he produced here is a brutal blackest black of science fiction horror novels that delivers a healthy dose of what the fuck. The first half felt like a bastard hybrid of Dark City and the the early seventies film Punishment Park. The whole book sets up a super dark mystery that once the reveals come will have you delightfully scratching your head.

UBO is an excellent example of a novel that is both science fiction and horror in equal measure. It takes a certain kind of reader but I for one found the haunting darkness of UBO to be beautiful in the level of pitch black tone it achieves. I went into the book blind about the story and was thankful that I did. So if you trust me I suggest you stop here, buy the book (or get it from your library) and come back to this review when you have read it.

OK minor spoiler warning...

UBO is a story seen through the eyes of Daniel a prisoner in Ubo. He and the other prisoners have vague memories of a life before Ubo, his family, but he doesn't know where or when Ubo is. Is it another time or world? he can't say but the prison guards are not human, they are giant cockroaches, and what view they have is of a destroyed landscape. The Roaches are not just holding them in this horrible place feeding them just enough flavorless protein paste to keep them alive, they are also using them for experiments.

These experiments involve mind swapping with some of the most notorious murders through out history. From Charles Whitman, Heinrich Himmler to Jack the Ripper. Daniel and the residents are subjected to live through the memories of the greatest killers some times more than once. The worst part is they are simply passengers. This makes these chapters hard to read in totally different way than the ones than the set-up taking place in Ubo, but the combination provides the story with a context that are bread crumbs leading to the reveal.

Daniel is a excellent point of view character and despite the limited amount of time they appear in the story the other characters are very well written. In the second half of the novel the story took a turn I was not expecting. I think personally I enjoyed the first half a tad more than the second half that seemed to go more hard sci-fi than surreal. There is no doubting that the novel was a masterpiece. I don't say that word lightly.

The first half of the book has a mystery as powerful as the setting, and that is saying something. When you mix the "I want to shoot myself" grim tone of Macarthy's The Road, with the political concepts and sheer "what the fuck is real?" of Philip K Dick you earned the word masterpiece. Read this now.

Book Review: Star Wars: Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein

Cobalt Squadron (Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

by Elizabeth Wein ), Phil Noto (Illustrator)

Hardcover, 251 pages

Published December 15th 2017 by Disney Lucasfilm Press

Look this is not exactly the mark of great literature, but I enjoy a good Star Wars novel and authors like Claudia Gray and Chuck Windig have recently added alot to the universe with stories of new canon that have depth. Cobalt Squadron is the story of the bomber squad we saw in the events of The Last Jedi. The events of this book lead directly into the events of the movie and follow mission that leads right into the events of the force Awakens and ties the last moments of that story to the first moments when we meet Paige and Rose Tico.

Rose becomes a major character in TLJ and this story does a great job of adding depth and strength to the two characters and the relationship they have as sisters. I have watched TLJ since reading this book and I have to say it did add depth in my head to the story between Rose and her sister.

I think Rose is a great character along with Admiral Holdo who always features in this book were the best new characters. The story is about a world that is being blockaded by the first order. In a desperate mission a small scout ship gets past the blockade and finds the rebels. The people are starving forget food, the empire is not allowing the people to get water. Rose suggests a plan she has been working on a device that fools sensors and thinks they could use the bombers to drop food and water like they do bombs. As you can imagine these don't go as planned.

Not going to spend a ton of time on it but I had fun with this short and and simple book. The author is a Star Wars nerd who had experience writing about similar pilots in World War II. She was a excellent choice in that sense. I like how it tied to the movies and only had two major problems. The story missed chances to add depth to the nature of the blockade and Rose had a line when she responded to an apology by saying "It's all good." That ism from out world took me out of the book. I know it is a little thing but but it bothered me.

Book Review: Solar Lottery by Philip K. Dick

Solar Lottery by Philip K. Dick

paperback, 200 pages

Published June 10th 2003 by Vintage

I have long resisted the idea of doing a podcast because there are a zaillion of them. I didn't want to do it unless there was an idea for one that was needed. Not just a show where we rambled. There had to be something missing, a topic that needed to be done. So when my writing partner Anthony mentioned that there is no podcast devoted to the works of Philip K. Dick. Dickheads was born.

Here is the idea we are going to read all of Philip K. Dick's novel length works in order of publication, once a month, so you can read along if you like. We will post a episode breaking down the novel, talk about science fiction and writing craft. Various other dick related stuff. So first up is the Solar Lottery. I will still post the reviews here on the blog, but wait until the pod is up, and will include a link to the episode. If you have not read the book, but want to learn about the pod can serve as PKD cliff notes.

So my review is written but I will add it back to this post with the episode of Dickheads when it is released. In the mean time listen to this preview or read along with us!

And now the full episode and review:

The Solar Lottery is the first released novel by PKD and as such it is a genius first novel that shows glimpses of what makes him one of the greatest science fiction writers ever. That said, this is his first novel and most of the amazing elements that make Dick special are not fully formed at this point. As a work of political sci-fi it is amazingly forward thinking, I can't imagine that many of of the readers in 1955 who bought the Ace double for the latest Leigh Brackett novel fully got the levels of message that PKD was laying down.

The novel takes place in the year 2203, and human society has slowly started to spread to the stars. To avoid the chaos that can come by letting voters decide who becomes president the ruler of humanity is chosen by a computer over seen by someone called the quizmaster. The idea is everyone submits a profile and the computer chooses the person most likely to do a good job. The story follows Ted Bentley who is just starting to work for the Quizmaster. Once he starts the job the computer suddenly decides to start a new quiz and everyonbe is shocked when a man named Leon Cartwright is chosen to take over.

This is where the Dick streak for the the paranoia shows up. Part of the job is that a reality show style game is started. An assassin is sent to kill Cartwright as a part of televised event. Normally it is set up to make the new leader look like a hero, he has a force of psychic police that protect him. Normally that would work except this assassin is a robot shell used as an avatar by a team of 24 rotating minds that control it remotely. By far the coolest concept of the book.

As a Dickhead it makes you wonder if that pink lazer beam that Dick claimed showed him the secrets of the universe didn't show him the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Certainly this book is a statement on leadership, but it goes deeper. Written in 1954/55 this was a time of nuclear attack drills. There is a throw-away reference the book to Minimax strategy. That is the worse case strategy that leaders in the nuclear arms race were dealing with. Certainly it was easy to think that no one who got the vote deserved to control buttons that could end civilization. That is the window that Solar Lottery is peaking out of.

Compared to later Dick books the concepts are simple and not nearly as mind bending, but compared to the space opera of the day and even the traditional works of the greats publishing at the time this book was staggeringly original.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Book Review: The God Problem by Howard Bloom

The God Problem by Howard Bloom

Hardcover, 708 pages

Published 2012 by Prometheus Books

This book is a 600 page trap. Keep in mind there is 100 pages of notes, but that is still a lot of pages for a book that suggests that it will answer the greatest mystery of all time. It says it on the cover "How a godless cosmos creates." On the surface the idea is one of our great minds talks about physics and traces the history of the greatest thinkers getting us closer and closer to explaining how the universe happened. A rational explanation beyond a "sky wizard" created us.

Howard Bloom's books and various accomplishments are great and far ranging but it seems no matter how smart you are a unwise topic to tackle. Our entire species has spent recorded history failing to answer the question at the heart of this book. So I was curious what this noted genius had to say. How does rationally explain the universe.

The structure of the book is interesting. He sets the table by introducing the big bang and the vast power of what science understands about our universe. He suggests the idea we imagine we are sitting at a table watching the universe begin. Then he explores the life and times of the scientists and great thinkers from the ancient world to Einstein who tackled these issues. Each great thinker gets a detailed history and infact that history ended up being my favorite part. I liked learning about Einstein, Kepler and Galileo.

The heart of the God Problem is expressed through the infinite Monkey theorem. That theory suggests that if you left six monkeys at six typewriters long enough they would eventually in a unending universe at some point type the text of Hamlet. To the hardcore atheist the universe is just that a huge cosmic accident. The paradox comes when science shows incredible precision from black holes to the DNA in the most tiny of cells.

My favorite quote from the book expresses this point:

"The Cosmos hides her creativity by preying on the way we oh-so-quickly become blase. She covers up her bombshells and her breakthroughs by tricking us into seeing the extraordinary as mundane." The Einstein chapter was the most interesting part of the book for me. Bloom writes at length about Einstein's ugly ducklings, the aspects of our universe that confused and eluded him. Most of these have been explained and I could see why many readers found this to usless fluff.

The point Bloom was trying to make was that all history of knowledge, through-out time has been working on these questions and still we don't know. I understand that he could have answered these questions faster if he tried. It wasn't until 537 pages in that he finally addressed why the infinte monkey theorem doesn't work for him. "If this were a cosmos of six monkeys at six typewriters, those "things," those particles, would have come in a zallion different shapes and sizes. Not to mention a million colors and textures. And a zillion smells and tastes. But they did not. No way. Particles popped forth in only fifty-seven species."

So after all this the point of Bloom's book is that the answer is not to be found. The journey is and the quest has provides a myrid of answers along the way. Certainly answer enough. For me as a believer in science and the spiritual I enjoyed the journey. I think the order of the universe is not an argument for a sky wizard in a traditional religious sense. It is an argument for a truth beyond our ability to disern, a higher power that could just as easily be natural but one science has yet to explain.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Book Review: Star Wars: Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

Star Wars: Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

Hardcover, 551 pages

Published September 4th 2015 by Disney Lucasfilm Press

This is my third Claudia Gray Star Wars novel and my fourth of her books over all. It is clear that she does the opera in space opera better than anyone else working in the canon SW tie-in fiction. I have been quite serious that I think Disney would be smart to give her a swing at doing a script for the movies. She clears gets the universe.

Lost Stars is very similar to her recent original novel Defy The Stars in that it is 200% Romeo and Juliet this one set against the back drop of the conflict between the rebels and the empire during the events that span the events of the Skywalker saga. This time seen through characters slightly off screen from the ones we have seen before.

511 pages is long for a Star Wars novel, one that seems to be YA focused although unlike even some adult marketed SW novels there is actual love scenes and talk of sex. (let me be clear I give zero fucks about that - just pointing it out). There is a massive amount of story here and I enjoyed how Gray wove in her own parallels and reversals to the existing structure of battles we know. I mean our leads are there at the battle of Yavin, they are at Hoth and Endor and it all comes to a head in events that feed into the Force Awakens.

This is a neat magic trick even if it seems at times that Claudia has to sit on the narrative suitcase to fit all the story into a long book. This could have been two or three books easily.

Thane and Ciena are from the same backwater outer rim world. They enter the imperial academy together and constantly compete for top of the class. This competition comes to a head when they admit they have feelings for each other. After graduation she is assigned to lord Vader's Star Destroyer and he is set serve on the Death Star. Thane only survives by being sent on the mission to explore the remains of the rebel base Leia sent them to on Datoine. Both are effected by seeing Aldderan and death star blown up. Ciena digs in with the empire because she feels trapped by honor code of her people to follow her oath. Thane is disgusted and joins the rebellion recruited by a fan favorite character. Once they are opposing sides despite the large universe, they end up near each other in battle. Gray finds smart ways to weave them in close to the Skywalker saga so events are familiar but their story is strong enough for them to carry their own narrative. It is a neat storytelling magic trick but the bottom line is the story works. As corny as the romance is and believe me it is, it all works in a Star Wars context. The story worked for me through out.

I have seen a few online comments that laughably mis-understand this book. Ciena's rationalization of the Death star seems to a few misguided readers to be a defense of the Atomic bombs used at Hiroshma and Nagasaki. For Ciena to be a fully formed character who sides with the empire she has to make this rationalization, to suggest this is Claudia Gray's point of view or the point of the novel is pure comedy.

In the end this is top notch space opera and a must read for Star Wars fans interested in reading the new Canon.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Book Review: The Wave by Walter Mosley

The Wave by Walter Mosley

Hardcover, First Edition, 209 pages

Published January 2006 by Warner Books (first published December 27th 2005)

Walter Mosley is an author who is known for his crime and mystery fiction. I had read a couple of his crime books back in the day and had no idea that he wrote science fiction until I heard about it on a podcast. I think it was Christopher Golden who mentioned his genre work on Three Guys with Beards. I am not sure I got the book he suggested as an example but I saw the The Wave on the shelf at the library so I jumped on it.

The Wave is a strange sci-fi novel, and I went into it totally cold not even reading the dust jacket before starting. I think the mystery is the best part of the novel, and for the first 80 pages I was super into it. The more I learned the less interesting the story was for me. The main character is Errol who is one year into a divorce, while he has a new love he is still fragile. The novel opens when he is getting a mysterious series of phone calls. "It's cold, Naked." He thinks he knows the voice and the mystery deepens when he hears more and more word. The voice that sounds like his father calls him by the nickname only he used. The reason that is strange is his father has been dead for nine years.

The voice wants help and asks him to come to the cemetery, the same one he had buried his father in nine years earlier. When he gets there he finds a young man, naked, and alone. Without basic skills the thing about this man he calls XT is he is a dead ringer for his father but younger. That mystery was masterfully set-up, with a raised eyebrow I was very interested in what was happening in the book. Once the details were laid out in the story I was not as interested in the concepts that drove the story.

Mosley tells a tale that doesn't have much science in it, the themes are more allegorical, which is odd for a book that is told with a minimalist prose style. The biggest weakness to mean are the characters like Errol whose is our voice is paper thin. the most interesting character is his resurrected father GT who falls out of the story for way to long. At this point we have to suffer through a government conspiracy story line that was far less interesting.

None the less I still enjoyed the book over all and want to read more Mosley. The characters and the general voice were interesting and carried me through. It is a short book that is overloaded with ideas. Without spoilers the concept mixes hippie like Gaia worship with supernatural elements that might have benefited from a wider scope.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Book Review: Shaker by Scott Frank

Shaker by Scott Frank

Hardcover, 335 pages

Published January 2016 by Knopf

I have a interesting set of feelings when it comes to Scott Frank. I am a big of him as writer, even more so than I am of his actual work. Let me explain that a bit. I mean I love movies he has written Logan, Out of sight, Get Shorty and Minority Report for example. I really liked his new Netflix series Godless, and think it is the best modern western I have seen recently. But more than his films I have always enjoyed and learned from reading/ listening interviews with him on the craft of writing.

I remember a interview with him about Minority report in the now defunct Creative Screenwriting that taught me lessons about structure I still use today when telling any story.

Shaker is a crime novel. no weird elements or anything super natural but it is told with a really well laid out non-linear structure. The magic in this case is Frank's skills at telling this story for maximum impact.

I went into the book knowing nothing deciding to read this based on the strength of Frank's career. This was a wise move that I suggest doing, but if you need more convincing I will carry on. The story has many characters and the POV switches when need-be but the main focus is Roy Cooper. When we meet him he is a mystery hit man, we know he is badass but we don't know how or why. We follow him on a hit that he has to travel cross country to LA to do. He is not excited about leaving the east coast and can't wait to be done with LA.

The hit goes fine, but on his way out he happens upon a group of young wanna be gangstas mugging a middle aged jogger. What Roy doesn't know is that the victim is a candidate for mayor, so when he steps in and gets shot it makes front page news. The various factions from the ganagstas he beat up to the mobsters who sent him and the cops investigating him all swirl around the story.

The most interesting elements of the story are all Roy Cooper, who and what he is. Sure there are surprising and funny events along the way. The back story of Roy Cooper is brutal, and heartbreaking, it is the heart of what makes this crime novel special and step above.

Do I think this is a must read? Not really, but I enjoyed it alot and I think crime readers will enjoy it. Scott Frank is a great writer and I hope this is not the last novel we get from him. I will read or watch anything he does.