Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Book Review: It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

Paperback, 380 pages

Published October 2005 by NAL Trade (first published 1935)

When talking about this novel (in 2018) it is pretty much impossible to escape the connection to Donald Trump. I mean the NY times published an essay by Beverly Gage three days before Donald Trump was inaugurated as president with the headline was "Reading the classic novel that predicted Trump..." I admit that was my primary motivation in reading this novel. My father was reading a different classic by Sinclair Lewis I knew that he had written this novel that I had remembered reading about it maybe in college. Talking about that other book I asked my father about it and he said he had not read it. So one of us had to read it right?

I knew that it would be interesting to read it in light of the new president, I no idea others had the same thought, and in fact many had.

Written in 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote this novel over the summer in a clear and obvious attempt to make a point before the 36 election 82 years ago. In that election the democrats were in a primary battle between FDR and a candidate who was a very Trump like rich populist who was the governor of Louisiana Huey Long.

Lewis was very worried about Long bringing fascism into power if he defeated Roosevelt in that election. He had some far left views about redistributing wealth but he was also extremely racist. Lewis saw this democrat as being America's answer to fascism. The on the nose title makes the point and the 300 plus pages are are like a hammer pounding away at the idea.

What makes this novel interesting is that when it was released it was a dystopian work of speculative fiction. 82 years ago it is still dystopian sci-fi but it has become an alternate history novel not unlike Philip K Dick's Hugo award winning classic Man in the High Castle. I say that in that it re-writes history to explore a nightmare past that never happened. The comparisons to Trump ended up being far less interesting to me than thinking about how the novel is totally different based on when it was written verses when I was reading it.

It is important to note that Lewis was warning his readers about Hitler more than three years before the Germans invaded Poland. So I was surprised by the mentions of concentration camps as I was not sure that anyone in the U.S. knew about them at the time.

Sinclair Lewis paints a grim vision and it is one worth reading but I think the comparisons to Trump are over blown. For one thing the dictator in the book Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip is a far leftie who wants to redistribute wealth. On the other hand he is driven to power by a Steve Bannon-like figure who was his campaign manager turned Secretary of State, Lee Sarason. In It Can't Happen Here Sarason writes his candidate's book, and forms his ideas about crushing his opposition. It is not long before they are shutting down papers (Fake news!), Opening camps (see the border crisis) and centralizing power (see how Trump has destroyed agencies like the EPA) so there are similarities.

While Trump was manipulated into sacking Bannon, Buzz was over thrown by Sarason. I think the comparisons are interesting considering the book was written in 1935 but it is not that close. I mean close enough to be impressive. I think this is an important novel but i think the most interesting thing to discuss is how it as a work of political fiction exists then and how it exists now.

The story is OK, the characters are pretty dry, and the events are interesting enough but without the historical aspect I am not sure how interested I would have been. It should also be noted that the former newspaper man Jessup in the book leads a revolution in the end while most in America are putting their hopes in the former director of the FBI to save them from Trump.

It Can't Happen here? I am sure some pointed to this book as commenting on LBJ, Regan, GW Bush and now Trump. It does talk about all those leaders and it will continue to comment on future leaders, that is until we get a better system. It is a classic for a reason. It has happened here, not as bad as europe but we have let little forms of fascism take hold and novels like this are important reminders what we need to do to keep liberty a thing.

Podcast Book Review: The Cosmic Puppets by Philip K. Dick

The Cosmic Puppets by Philip K. Dick

Paperback, 150 pages

Published November 11th 2003 by Vintage Books USA (first published 1957)

The Cosmic Puppets is the 4th novel published by PKD. For the first time there is consensus among these three dickheads. See if you agree with our assessment of Dick's combination of Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka. Plus: A weird intergalactic mariachi nazi. Psychological fantasy of the dream type. And, unfortunately, boob mountains.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Book Review: The Soldier by Neal Asher.

The Soldier by Neal Asher

Hardcover, 375 pages

Published May 15th 2018 by Night Shade Books

Neal Asher wrote one of my favorite sci-fi novels, that happens to take place in this larger universe. That novel The Skinner is to me an absolute classic. I am not even close to having read all the books by Asher or in this series but when I saw this book had just come out and was the start of a new trilogy I was excited to give it a shot.

While this is a new trilogy it takes place in the larger canon of Asher's work. The Polity, is the far future civilization of humanity, who are controlled by a central AI. Most humans are at least partly enhanced, so this novel is dominated by trans-human cyborgs and AI. In the Polity, this civilization has long been at war with crab creatures known as the Prador. Having read several novels and stories set in the Polity I can't say how this book stands alone.

This is space opera, but it is really intensely weird space opera with not really any characters that look or act like people in a recognizable sense. This is a very different barely human race, machines and crab like creatures.I can say even though I have read books in this universe before I constantly flipping back to the glossary that is REALLY NEEDED for this book. It is not just the characters and cultures, but some of the weird technology I would forget what something was and would flip forward.

This was not a turn-off to me but I could see how some readers would not like to have to do that. I am sure Asher's books could be confusing to some readers. I for one enjoy how bananas alot of it is. I think the Skinner besides being the his best novel is the one that blends in the world building details into the story the best.

As for the Solider this novel was fun for me but not a quick or easy read. It took a little while for Asher to weave the elements together but I liked the effect in the end. the story is mostly pew pew space battles. A bunch of different forces are summoned to this large object in space that appears to be hiding a artifacts that are basically weapons of this long dead advanced civilization The Jain. That old culture was mentioned through the books. So the Jain are like this lost mythical species. The story centers around one of this long dead species being brough back life after centuries and the various forces fight over it.

One of the coolest moments is when I realized that the soldier was able to return basically transmitted by the Splatterjay virus (from The Skinner). A soldier basically resurrected after five million years by the virus. Those are some of the just insane ideas that are commonplace in a Asher book.

One of the coolest things of the book was when the sub-mind of the Jain soldier in the final stages sets up and for shadows the rest of the trilogy.

"You cannot stop The Soldier,"the fading submind told her.

"What weapons can stop it?" She asked.

"You do not have them. It will destroy your defense sphere and detonate the sun."

I think you should read Asher and the polity which is similar to Ian Banks Culture universe in the vast scope of it all. I personally would say Gridlinked or The Skinner are better places to start. If you were thinking you wanted space opera but way weirder space opera Neal Asher is always your guy.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Book Review: Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Hardcover, 263 pages

Published November 2017 by Harper

I know I first heard about this book while listening to a podcast and I want to say it was NPR's Fresh Air but I could be wrong about that. Broken into three narrative parts, each feels a little different from the other but not enough that you'll feel like you are reading a new book.

Louise Erdrich is an award winning writer, and I could tell that she is amazing. I certainly who am I to give a bad review to an author who won the national book award and was a finalist for the Pulitizer. I mean she is clearly a great author, but sometimes writer and idea don't mesh well together. I just think this sub-genre benefits from certain skills and abilities that are honed by writing and reading genre fiction. It is like the difference from being a native and tourist. I think Erdrich is a dystopia tourist.

I enjoyed the first act best, when the author was using a little more humor and weirdness in the prose. once the story got into the societal effects that drive the plot is when the book lost me. This is a case of a very talented literary author trying her hand at genre, and in my opinion not really doing it justice. It felt like it was an attempt to be a Climate Change themed re-telling of The Handmaid's Tale. While Atwood doesn't really consider herself science fiction or speculative fiction she really is. She understands one basic thing that Erdrich didn't. You have do at least some world building in a dystopia, this book has almost ZERO world building.

FHFTLG is very rightly getting dinged by some for being a little too much like the Handmaid's tale. I could have lived with it if it was at least an advancement over the influence. A good case in point is Robert McCammon's Swan Song that owes an awful lot to King's classic The Stand. The thing is I can live with that because honestly I think Swan Song is better.

Unlike the Atwood classic that examines the whole culture of the story we get a few random paragraphs that just left me thinking that we are missing the point. I like character driven stories but in this genre you have to balance that impulse with giving the reader a understanding of what is happening to them. Cedar Songmaker is a GREAT character in a empty shell of book that fails explore it's own plot.

In this case it is future heavily effected by the effects of global climate change. I am very passionate about stories addressing these issues. I am always on the look out for authors who are tackling climate issues. I wanted to like this but just can't give it a thumbs up. I have been seeing this on a few lists of must read climate change influenced fiction and I have to say that there are lots of better entries in that canon.

Erdrich is a great writer, far better than many of us who are writing cli-fi, but just can't see this as a a great example of climate change in speculative fiction.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Book Review: Blood Standard (Isaiah Coleridge #1) by Laird Barron

Blood Standard (Isaiah Coleridge #1) by Laird Barron

Hardcover, 336 pages

Published May 29th 2018 by G.P. Putnam's Sons

Laird Barron is not a surprise or a revelation to those of us who read horror and dark fiction, I have read short stories in various collections and reviewed The his collection Imago Sequence in 2012. I was a big fan of the reality bending novella The Hallucigenia. It is a strange family drama that twists through the lens of an horrific injury and hallucinogenic episodes. Barron is known for weird, sometimes surreal stories that highlight the darkest notions of horror with a cosmic sense of dread. It is not light or breezy reads. His weird fiction simply is not for the mainstream.

The one brush with the mainstream the works of Laird Barron enjoyed was being one of the many works of new weird that influenced the wildly popular first season of True Detective. As a dark fiction fan I really enjoyed Barron's work but just didn't see how something so weird could get wider appeal. It was close with lots of attention and being name dropped in several True Detective articles didn't hurt, but as good of a writer as Barron is it just is not mainstream accessible. That is praise as far as I am concerned but that doesn't help Laird Barron pay the bills.

On the surface the idea of LB turning to a work of mainstream Hammett,Leonard, Chandler, or Ellroy-like crime might seem commercially motivated. My response to that is Yeah, so what? No one can read the 336 pages of this novel and not feel the authors passion for the genre of crime. Honestly I am five times into Laird Barron the crime writer as I am the horror writer.

This is a masterpiece of tough guy crime, and that has everything to do with an author who clearly is intelligent with the ability to write highly literate prose,a stylist, but also with the experience and bravado to write effective macho-ma-cheese-mo. It is the balance that makes Tarantino great in film and Elmore Leonard great in any format. It is weird at times but there is nothing supernatural. If you didn't think Barron could write a book with a different bag of tricks think again.

I'll admit if his name was not on the cover Laird Barron is not the first name that would have come to mind reading this. It is a change of pace. It is the story of Isiah Coldridge a massive man who worked as a mafia enforcer up in Alaska. After attacking a gang leader up north he is beaten badly, his life is saved because of the respect that the gang leaders have for his father. His Dad is ex-military and a hunting buddy. I suspect later in the series we will more about his father's ties to crime.

Isiah is a big ugly and oddly smart tough guy. He is a great lead character. To heal from his almost fatal experience he is sent back to New York near his estranged father to heal. Living on a farm life seems back to normal until the granddaughter of his hosts goes missing and he is positive it is tied to several crime families, nazi skinheads and a truckload of trouble.

It also has a fight scene that rivals the Oldboy hallway fight. I loved this:

"I charged. Everything happened fast after that.

Behold the essence of violence. It's not martial arts or slick John Woo gunplay. Those things don't function under the pressure that violence exerts upon its participants. Hand-to-hand combat is decided by velocity and initiative. Ferocity,tenacity, mass and a reckless negligence toward one's own continued existence - that's what wins the battle. Except on this occasion I had no interest in winning.

I wanted to annihilate the world."

I laughed and cringed a bunch. and there were lines through-out that I dog eared because they were funny. Favorites include:

"I've done many dark deeds in my misbegotten life, but until today I've never beaten to death the president of a white supremacist gang. As you might guess from my swarthy complexion and unsightly scarring, it has been near the top of my to-do list."


"Disobey me and I won't report you to the cops, I'll come to your house and put a hurt on you. Four out of five doctors agree, it's tough to wipe your ass with a hook."

For fans of Barron, this might be too dramatic a change, but I hope not. I don't think it fair to characterize this novel as retrained, because it is badass and crazy at times. Barron is in the zone and I personally prefer it and am more excited for the crime stuff from him in the future.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book Review: Star Wars: Last Shot: (A Han and Lando Novel) by Daniel José Older

Star Wars: Last Shot: (A Han and Lando Novel) by Daniel José Older

Paperback, 368 pages

Published April 2018 by Del Rey

I read plenty of EU Star Wars books back in the day. I know many of the fans felt burned when Lucasfilm reset the canon and ejected the EU. I was OK with it even though I spent a lot time reading them. One of the things I like about how it is being re-done at this time is the strength of authors is much higher.

Take this Han and Lando Last shot. Daniel Jose Older is a author I respect. I have a couple books on my shelf I have meant to read, I admit I have yet, but I have listened to a few interviews with him and I have read several short stories of his. I knew he was a excellent and thoughtful story-teller so I was excited to dig into this one.

I was rewarded with a solidly plotted non-linear time jumping adventure story with larger stakes than the average SW novel. What is most impressive about this novel as a Star Wars tie-in is how the story uses seeds from the the latest film (SOLO). This would not be that special of a thing except that it takes place in the narrative into events between episodes 6 and 7. It is hard to discuss with out spoilers, and I was happy I went into the book pretty much blind. I mean this is for hardcore SW nerds but if you were just wondering about the writing and storytelling I would say it is great. Even better is DJO does a wonderful just of bringing the humor and weird aspects of the SW to the forefront. He does this while telling a twisting and exciting story.

So that said I will talk spoilers from here on out. Last Shot is pretty well split from it's focus on both Han and Lando, and certainly jumps from different eras. I am not sure what it means in Star Wars when it says Now, 15 years ago or 10 years ago. What is a year in a society spread across many worlds? I know don't over think it. ( I understand in the new republic time is based a year on the capital but whatever) The events pre-Solo are said to be 15 years before the events when Ben Solo is a toddler. my only confusion with the was math and timelines. That said I eventually just forgot about the numbers and rode with it.

The stakes in this novel are bigger than a ever for a Han Solo novel, sure there is a smuggling run to kick off the story and in a well plotted twist they end up facing a galaxy spanning threat. This all ties back El3 and a droid rebellion she helped to start before being uploaded to the falcon. How awesome is that?

I don't have much else to say other than the characters are recognizable and that is important for a tie-in. DJO is clearly a talented writer and even if I was not already interested I would be now. Shadowshaper was already on my to read list but I am going to bump it up now.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Book Review: The Hematophages by Stephen Kozeniewski

The Hematophages by Stephen Kozeniewski

Paperback, 326 pages

Published April 2017 by Sinister Grin Press

They say in marketing that you have to hear a pitch a couple times before it hooks you. That I am afraid is why we talk so often about our books. This is a classic example. I first heard of this novel and Kozeniewski on The Horror Show with Brian Keene. When Kozeniewski was on the podcast the second time he talked about this book and I thought the novel sounded right up my alley. I requested it at the library as I do many books. (By the way if you can get a library to to get an author's book that is better than just buying a copy)

I checked the library website a few times but every time Brian Keene mentioned Kozeniewski on the podcast which is often I would think about The Hematophages. So a few months back I bought a copy and saved it for an airplane read. Yesterday thanks to a delayed flight and long lay-over I read this book in about 4 hours during a trip from Indiana back to San Diego.

The Hematophages is a blend of horror and science fiction. Kozeniewski is most well known for his zombie detective bizarro novel Brain-eater Jones. I hope this novel signals a blending of genre he will continue. The story of Paige Ambroziek a young woman who has lived the majority of her life on a space station. Paige's history makes her a perfect narrator, because she has no experience out in the ink(cool slang for space) or being on worlds. This fish out of water aspect is thankfully not used for comedy but is subtly applied to help world-build in the narrative.

Paige is a student who has expertise on ship salvage and is given a mission by a mega-corporation to find the wreck of a famous spaceship lost for hundreds of years. The major problem with this operation is the ship is on a fleshworld with oceans of blood. I enjoyed the universe of this novel that involved nasty corporations, wormy blood drinking monsters, cancer-ridden zero-g Mutant pirates (the Skin-wrappers) and a planet with bat-shit crazy ecologically that was more surreal than hard sci-fi.

It is clear that Kozeniewski was inspired by Aliens and the Thing and working from that sense he came up with a cool hook for this kind of Sci-fi tale. Once he got to the insanity of the Fleshworld I was sold. If it seems like I am harsh or critical of the book it is important to that I am doing that because I really really LOVED it. There were just a few things that kept it from being a masterpiece for me. That is no slight, I loved it and I think you should read it. It is 1,000 better than most attempts to marry sci-fi and horror.

Let us start with what is great about this novel. I liked that Kozeniewski didn't bother trying to explain the science of deep space travel. He assumes in this first person narrative Paige would expect understanding from her readers. When writing about a coast to coast car trip do modern writers feel the need to explain the science of cars? I suspect that will turn off a few sci-fi readers stuck in their ways, but I found it was refreshing. My mind filled in the gaps.

The world(universe)building is effective, with enough clever and sometimes funny elements like the opening interview and the skin-tight airlocks. The Skinwrapper pirates who lived in zero-G for so long they barely looked human were so well realized that Nia was one of my favorite characters. The paranoia in the second half is well done, never going overboard but just enough to give us a sense of distrust the survivors at the end felt. The planet is soaked in blood before the over the top gore comes in but it is done in smart was, including a fantastic chapter break in the last act that got a "Oh shit" out of me.This universe that Kozeniewski has built is rich and deserves more stories set in it.

That said I had a few minor problems. I have seen the society in this book described as Matriarchal. It is true that in this future men are extinct and referred to as the dead gender. This is a cool set up, and certainly enjoyed this aspect of the novel. I might be nitpicking without men or patriarchy the society is not matriarchy it just is. I felt like this culture just seemed like any other corporate structure in our world. There was not enough of what makes a a woman's society for me. There was some ball-busting and macho behavior that I think undermined the potential of a different looking future with-out us men.

Sci-fi has played with those gender roles as far back Leguin's Left Hand of Darkness and bit more subtle in Carrie Vaughn's Coast Roads books. I loved the idea of a all-woman culture but thought that was weakest part of the execution. If Kozeniewski returns to this universe needs some attention to that aspect.

Also one aspect that this novel is rightly getting lots of praise for is world-building. The Fleshworld is a crazy and cool place that this novel visits. The problem for me is that it is very similar to the world of Splatterjay from the Neal Asher novel The Skinner. I suspect Kozeniewski has not read the Skinner, but the eco-system of the Flesh world is very close. The Skinner is my favorite Sci-fi novel of the 21st century so it was a little hard for me to ignore. In the end they are different enough that I am glad both exist.

The Hematophages is one of the best books I have read so far this year. It is bold and weird science fiction that feels old school and insane at the same time. It is bizarro, dark sci-fi and horror in equal measure. A super neat book that I am glad I picked up. It is a little bit a parallel of Aliens, A reversal of Carpenter's The Thing (paranoia with all women) and with a world-building that reminded me of Neal Asher's The Skinner. That is a good mix.

Podcast Book Review: The Man Who Japed by Philip K. Dick

The Man Who Japed by Philip K. Dick

Paperback, 168 pages

Published November 2002 by Vintage (first published 1956)

PKD's third released novel is sci-fi take on communist China with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. The world building, characters and sci-fi humor are all top notch in this novel. PKD was coming into his own here. The ending was panned for being a rip-off of Swift's Modest Proposal and it sounds like rightly so. I didn't write a full review because we broke it down on the Dickheads podcast. For a full and detailed review listen here:

My Dickheads interview of UCSD Physics professor Brian Keating

Professor Brian Keating is an astrophysicist with UC San Diego’s Department of Physics. He and his team develop telescopes to study the Big Bang. He is the author of over 100 scientific publications and holds two U.S.Patents. He received the 2007 Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers at the White House from President Bush for a telescope he invented and deployed at the U.S. South Pole Research Station called “BICEP". Professor Keating became a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 2016 and is the author of Losing the Nobel Prize: A Story of Cosmology, Ambition, and the Perils of Science's Highest Honor, selected as one of Amazon.com’s Ten Best Nonfiction Books of the Month and one of Nature Magazine’s Six Best Books of the Season.

Brian Keating - briankeating.com/

Brian's Book - amzn.to/2sa5UpA

TEDX - www.youtube.com/watch?v=T22s4jCZ4Ho

I had the chance to interview Dr. Keating for the Dickheads podcast. I am not gonna lie when Dr. Keating said I missed my calling and should work in the Physics lab was a pretty great moment for me.