Saturday, April 28, 2018

Book Review: Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn

Paperback, 274 pages

Published July 11th 2017 by John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books

Winner of the 2017 Philip K. Dick Award

I feel a little ashamed to have never read a Carrie Vaughn book. Her Mars Abroard book seems up my alley and she has been doing it long enough that I was surprised she slipped my notice. This novel got on my radar because it won the 2017 Philip K. Dick award. In my new role as co-host of a PKD podcast I felt I should check it out. I am glad I did because this novel hits many of my sweet spots. Post-apocalyptic,political, and thoughtful plot-driven speculative fiction. Yep.

A little heads up...I am interviewing Vaughn to be the first guest interview on the Dickheads podcast. When that happens I will add it back into this post. (of course you can follow Dickheads on Facebook/soundcloud/twitter/instagram to get right away)

Bannerless takes place a few generations after a economic and environmental collapse along the California coast. Our main character Enid lives in a utopian village known as Haven. Her aunt who had recently died was the last to remember the time before. Enid is a investigator, the closest thing these villages have to law enforcement. The villages operate from an almost anarchist ideal of mutual aid, so the investigators are not often needed. They are mostly called to settle disputes.

The most important law is the one that balances the ecology. The right to reproduce is tightly restricted by a implant that all women are given. Families are structured beyond what we think of is a nuclear family and once a they can prove they have the ability to support a child they are given a Banner to hang outside their house. That banner is the permission. One of the biggest crimes in this world is having a Bannerless child.

The main story however is not directly about a Bannerless child, Enid and her mentor Tomas are set to a smaller village to investigate a accidental death with a suspicious nature. Vaughn applies a structure that goes back and forth between the current events of the investigation and a young Enid who traveled the west coast with a guitar playing busker named Dak. The flashbacks are used perfectly to do the bulk of the world building, and set up some key parallels and reversals.

I went in cold and I think the less you know the better.

While very worthy of the Philip K Dick award the author's work that Bannerless reminds me more of in tone and subject matter is Ursula Leguin. While Vaughn has her own voice I mean this with the upmost respect. The coast road is a future post end of the world novel and there is a fine tradition of novels like this set in California from Leguin's Always Coming Home, Gene O'Neil's Cal Wild books and Kim Stanley Robinson's Three California trilogy. Bannerless is a strong entry in this sub-genre.

The world building is subtle but well done, the political nature of the story is so softly delivered and well woven into the story that Vaughn could not be accused of being heavy handed. Since this is a book 1 I suspect that future installments will be less subtle with the message. CV did an excellent job setting up the Bannerless child concept and then only slightly uses it. I suspect it will come into play next time at the forefront. We have a template for a story that can express issues related to reproductive rights, ecological and social justice issues.

Bannerless is a top notch read. 5/5 stars and I hope everyone check it out.

Dickheads interview on Youtube:

The Dickheads interview on Soundcloud:

Book Review: Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: A Young Man's Voice from the Silence of Autism by Naoki Higashida, K.A. Yoshida (Translation) , David Mitchell (Translation)

Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8: A Young Man's Voice from the Silence of Autism by Naoki Higashida,

K.A. Yoshida (Translation) , David Mitchell (Translation)

Hardcover, 240 pages

Published July 11th 2017 by Random House

My experience with autism is mostly professional but anyone who has worked in the field of Autism support or education as I have for a long time knows - it always becomes personal. A few years back famous bestselling author David Mitchell (I reviewed his Bone Clocks on this blog)brought attention to a Japanese book called The Reason I Jump. This became a english language bestseller as it was the first persona narrative of a non-verbal young man from Japan with autism. Mitchell and his wife KA Yoshida translated the book because it was important for understanding their relationship with their son who has autism.

In his second book Higashida is now a young adult and despite the success of his first book is still struggling to exist without speaking in talking culture. While it includes all the same personal stories that the first book did, this one comes with a very helpful interview with the author that appeared in a Japanese newspaper and a dream-like short story the author's first attempt at first. The story is a highlight of the book.

The thing that makes this book special is how it gives voice to thoughts and ideas that can help those of us who live around but not with autism every day. Let me give you a personal example. I work at a private school for special needs in Ocean Beach a neighborhood of San Diego. I have a hour long bus commute to work each morning. I could bike to work but I choose the bus to have a hour of reading time in the morning after going to the gym. As you can see from the book reviews on this blog most of my reading is in the genres I write in. Science Fiction, horror, bizarro and sometimes crime.

I had seen this on the self at my parents house. My step-mother Susan is a retired professor who taught special educators at Indiana University. I had the idea that this book could help me. So on the morning I started this book I read about 100 pages of it. It was very eye opening but most of it pushed me to think deeper about my non-verbal students.

That morning I assigned to work with a primarily non-verbal student who uses touchchat on the Ipad to speak. I had only worked with him a few times. In the afternoons He would say I WANT and then hold down the BUS buttons so it would say it 50 times. We normally tell him that we hear him, or point to the timer that shows how long he has left in his day. Some days he will ask for Oreo cookie a dozen times in a row. We ask him to finish his thought, respond best we can. Lets face it hearing the same thing that many times is annoying.

What reading this book did for me remind me to slow down and consider why he was doing it. This student understands language but all his life he had no one to respond. Now that he has the Ipad and we have taught him to talk with it, it is like screaming to get out. He is bursting at the seems to express himself. The damn has broken. It was what I needed to calm my mind in those moments.

I recommend this book to all parents, aunts and uncles of kids and adults with autism. Educators in this field cannot go wrong. It is an eye opening book. Super entertaining as well.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Book Review: The Night Masquerade (Binti #3) by Nnedi Okorafor

The Night Masquerade (Binti #3) by Nnedi Okorafor

Paperback, 208 pages

Published January 16th 2018 by

Nnedi Okorafor is one of the best and strongest voices working in Science Fiction today. Her story telling skill is top notch that perfectly balances world building,characters and plotting, all those elements are woven through her work with great attention to detail. She writes African themed Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy and Magical Realism for both adults and YA readers. I am excited to finally read the third and final book in the Binti trilogy. This series is Afrofuturistic sotra space opera slightly with some elements of hard sci-fi. Together the three books could function as one book and those of you coming to the story now are lucky you can read it that way. I suspect it will be a better experience done all at once.

The world building is certainly the strongest aspect of all three Binti books but the Characters are given strength and moments to shine. This series is a great place for readers to go if they saw Black Panther and wanted more African themed speculative fiction. Binti is a very African science fiction tale and for that alone it is a neat and pretty singular experience. How many Sci-fi stories can say that in the Twentieth Century.

The story of Binti is told first person through her eyes. She leaves her native Africa for a university on another world. Deeply spiritually minded Binti paints her skin with the red soil of her homeland to remain connected. Shortly after leaving earth she is the lone human survivor of an attack on the living starship she is a passenger on. She is able to survive thanks to melding with a member of attacking species known as Medusa. Suddenly her long dredlocks come to life with Alien DNA and she ressurected as a hybrid.

In book two she returns to earth and book three resolves that conflict. The ending was not one I expected and comes with a powerful twist. To pull off that twist the narrative that to leave the first person narrative for a few chapters. This could have been jarring but it worked well.

I know this is a short review but these books are also short. That said they are overflowing with ideas and are some of the best sci-fi of this century so far.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Book Review: The Listener by Robert R. McCammon

The Listener by Robert R. McCammon

Hardcover, 332 pages

Published February 2018 by Cemetery Dance Publications

Anyone that follows my reviews knows that Robert R. McCammon is one of my favorite living writers. His ability to tell a story effectively in the novel format is pretty much unmatched. I am not sure it is possible for him to write a bad book. Gone South, Mine and of course Swan Song are some of my favorite books of all time. When I heard about this book coming out from Cemetery Dance I was beyond thrilled. While I am not as big of a fan of his Matthew Corbett historical mysteries recent novels like The Five and I Travel by Night have hit my sweet spot. Those were both returns to earlier styles of McCammon novels of the 80's and 90's. The Five was an action driven suspense novel about a Rock and roll band that mixed the music world with something like the Hitcher. It was a hell of a read Stephen King even called it McCammon's best.

I Travel by Night was a neat little monster/horror/western that I enjoyed. I would personally consider the Listener a novel or horror, released by a horror publisher in Cemetery Dance, I am not sure exactly why it was labeled on the cover as a "Novel of Suspense." I mean it is a novel of Suspense sure, but it is a novel filled with genuine moments of horror, and even supernatural elements. So I am confused by this tag line. While we are talking about the cover it is as boring of a design as I can remember which is too bad because it is an expensive book.

I went into this novel entirely cold on the plot, knowing nothing at all and reading it based on McCammon's strength of work in the past. This is an excellent way to approach this story as it has a few twists that benefit from having no preconceptions.

Is it a favorite of mine? Compared to McCammon's past work I would say - not even close. Don't get me wrong his worst novel is probably 100 times better than most. It is interesting because some of this review is going to sound negative but that has to do with the super high bar RRM has set for himself. For each element I didn't like there were elements I loved. Over all I had a great reading experience and consider it a four out of five star book despite major issues.

My favorite thing about the Listener is how many "rules" McCammon breaks in telling this story and it doesn't suffer for it. in a 3rd person narrative like this most editors never want you to change the point of view in chapters, even with clear breaks. Some want you to pick one POV for a whole book and never change it. There are times in this book when the POV shifts mid paragraph and even one sentence to the next. I personally consider that a huge No-no, but RRM somehow pulls it off.

The novel spends the first 84 pages establishing the character who turns out to be a villain, a interesting choice because it makes him sympathetic before he does awful stuff. John Partlow who goes by several names in the book is a con man. The opening con where he sells bibles to illiterate widows does a good job of setting up the depression era setting in the south. We then follow along as he meets Ginger a conwoman with a plan. After the first chapters we get a change in setting. The character of Curtis Mayhew is a red cap at the train station a young black-man who has always had a special talent. He hears voices They are people across the miles he hears like a telepathic phone call he talks to the other rare people with his talent.

One of those people is a young child We eventually learn that she is the child of a rich businessman. of course these stories weave together when we discover that Crutis is listening in on the young child's kidnapping. This sets up a cat and mouse game that creates plenty of scary moments. Those most frightening moments however come from the race issues inherit to the era it takes place in. Imagine you are a young black man in 1934 claiming to have knowledge of a kidnapping in the south? Yeah it gets ugly.

Over all I liked the novel but one thing really bugged me. McCammon often gets compared to Stephen King, it doesn't help when novels like Swan Song appear to be very, very much like The Stand. I would argue that Swan Song is a better book, but still that criticism had dogged McCammon for years. In this novel RRM not only uses an overused Stephen King trop he uses the most cringe worthy one I can think of. King has this problem with using characters who are what Spike Lee called the "magical negro." The Shining, The Stand, Green Mile and even last year in Sleeping Beauties. This didn't ruin my enjoyment of the novel it just made me uncomfortable.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Book Review: The Unnoticeables by Robert Brockway

The Unnoticeables by Robert Brockway
Hardcover, 288 pages Published July 7th 2015 by Tor Books

On the surface this book should be something I am into. It is a dark urban fantasy with punk and horror elements. Written by an author from a city I used live in. I am told we have mutual friends. Everything seemed to be lining up. As a story to cuts back and forth from two settings one in the late 70's New York Punk scene the other more modern day Hollywood. I found the the 70's setting a tad more interesting.

The biggest problem I had this novel is that I could not connect to the characters. I had trouble telling them apart,and the story just didn't connect with me. By the time the two storylines began to connect I was over it. I found myself distracted constantly. My mind was wondering.

Brockway is a good writer I can tell but this story didn't connect with me. I know this is a short review and this author deserves more attention from his readers. This is a "it's not you it's me" review. I just couldn't get into this book I had to skip pages to get to ending. I think the concept is good and I think many will enjoy this blend of punk and fantasy.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Book Review: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Leguin

The Dispossessed by Ursla K. Leguin

Paperback, 387 pages

Published October 20th 1994 by Harper Voyager (first published May 1974)

Hugo Award for Best Novel (1975)

Nebula Award for Best Novel (1974)

Prometheus Hall of Fame Award (1993)

Locus Award for Best Novel (1975)

Jupiter Award for Best Novel (1975)

John W. Campbell Memorial Award Nominee for Best Science Fiction Novel (1975)

Ditmar Award Nominee for Best International Long Fiction (1975)

Of all the artists we have lost in the last year no one hit me as hard as Ursula Leguin, now I know she lived into her 80's and yes that is a pretty good run but her voice and work remained strong. Right after her death I decided to re-read this classic that I first read nineteen years ago. It took me a few weeks to get to it, but I chose to read it on a trip home to Indiana because I knew I would read the majority of it in one sitting that way. This book is rightfully promoted as one of the best and first real attempts in a science fiction novel to depict an anarchist society. In that sense it is a little overblown as the majority of the takes place Urras which is a culture much like ours.

In the 2017 edition she wrote :"So, when I realized that nobody had yet written an anarchist utopia, I finally began to see what my book might be. And I found that its principal character, whom I’d first glimpsed in the original misbegotten story, was alive and well—my guide to Anarres."

We certainly get scenes on Anarres but if this is Leguin looking at anarchism it is important to think of it as Anarchism 101 and her later novel Always Coming Home as a master class. You have to give Leguin credit for exploring these issues forty years ago, but much like gender issues in Left Hand of Darkness the age of the book shows a little bit. Don't get me wrong it is a masterpiece and a absolutely essential classic of radical Science Fiction.

This novel is the story of Shevek a scientist who studies physics at a university on Anarres. He is trying to finalize a general theory which he believes can lead to faster than light travel, in time he realizes that he cannot get the full support he needs for his research on his home world of Anarres. Most in his anarchist culture are fine living on their desert world, get getting supply ships. With out the need for conquest science and resources are fewer and far between. The setting of the novel is one of the highlights. Set in the far future when humanity has mostly moved on from a nearly dead earth. Most humans live on two worlds in the near by star system of Tau Ceti. (The setting of Kim Stanley Robinson's amazing Aurora). Most humans lived on Urras and life is not that different from ours. There are countries at war and the one called A-Io is certainly a stand in for modern America.

Shevek is a Odoion, the followers of a woman named Odo had started an Anarchist syndicalist rebellion. To end the conflict Odo and her followers were given the twin world, and promise of peace to develop their own utopia. For two-hundred years they had lived by anarchist principles. Leguin has said she was inspired by anarchist writers such as Peter Kropotkin and Paul Goodman. This utopia has many features seen in collectives through-out the anarcho-punk movements the lack of hierarchy,sexual equality and they don't eat animals. This is one of many other elements that have made this novel popular with the radical left. It is not your average sci-fi book that has a character give a speech and say "We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals." (page 300)

This is not an action oriented story, it is a slow burn mood piece that paints a picture of contrast between two ways of life. Leguin could have made this super heavy handed, but doesn't. The action comes mostly in the final act when Shevek is shocked to learn that his research into faster than light travel is owned by the government on Urras that funded his research and he decides to take it back to his world. This leads him being a fugitive from the capitalist government and a minor hero to the new protest movement inspired by Odo's beliefs on Urras.

It is the ideas and the exploration of anarchism that make this novel special. I mean there is a good story here and UKL never loses sight of that. If there is a weakness of the novel is that despite the non-linear plot it takes till page 294 for the driving event of the narrative to happen. Shevek realizes the state wants to own his ideas. In one sense that is OK because it is the IDEA of Odo and her followers that are the value of this book.

Leguin has interesting way of making sure the collective nature sticks on the planet. Anarres is a harsh desert world, that requires cooperation, they cannot survive without it. It also keeps their young society from growing to fast. The Odoian beliefs are first laid on on page 94(of the Harper paperback I read)but through-out the story those anarchist ideals are laid out. The action is secondary, and even though it is subtle the narrative drive comes from the fish out of water tale. It is not done in a humorous or over the top way.

Anarres is thought of as a Utopia but Leguin is careful not to make it perfect, the very reason Shevek leaves is not a pretty one. On this anarchist world everyone must do the hard labor at some point. Despite his research being of such importance it is reality that he has to leave it behind and has to work hard labor in the field. Shevek is not opposed to the hard work, and eblieves in the system but also thinks his theories are to important to give up. Certainly it is fair that despite his status as scientist is requirement to work in hard labor is the same as anyone.

This is seen as a result of a society that doesn't have any form of ownership: “A child free from the guilt of ownership and the burden of economic competition will grow up with the will to do what needs doing and the capacity for joy in doing it. It is useless work that darkens the heart. The delight of the nursing mother, of the scholar, of the successful hunter, of the good cook, of the skillful maker, of anyone doing needed work and doing it well, - this durable joy is perhaps the deepest source of human affection and of sociability as a whole.”

Late in the book the characters discuss the lack of freedom that would develop naturally in this utopia. You are are free to do what you want, but if you choose to ignore the pull to mutual aid you could easily become an outcast. Anyone who has been a part of the radical activist community has seen the self sabotage and circular firing squad that can develop if one is not seen as pure enough. At no point is Leguin suggesting this is an argument against anarchism - just a reality. Leguin believed in these ideals and it is clear from this novel, but even more so in Always Coming Home.

This book is a classic of deep thought in a speculative format. A master of science fiction at the top of her game. To say it is a must read is a massive understatement. Everyone interested in Science Fiction or radical political thinking should read this novel.

Speech by Leguin from 1975:

Radio Drama based on the book: