Sunday, May 31, 2020

Book Review: Final Impact by Yvonne Navarro

Final Impact by Yvonne Navarro

Mass Market Paperback, 480 pages
Published January 1997 by Random House Publishing Group

This was a very interesting read for me. Navarro is an author I have been long overdue to read and this is a long time coming. I had the sequel to this novel Red Shadows on my shelf for years and had been searching for the first book forever. It was last year that I decided enough was enough and I ordered a beat up copy of the mass market paperback. I assume this was a first edition.

Interesting that Goodreads had no image of the cover on my book. Oh well.

I want to say something off the bat because I don't want to be misunderstood. Navarro is a hell of a writer and any problems book had were mostly on me. I have to admit this book was not exactly the book I was hoping for. Weird end of the world novels are my absolute favorites. I first discovered the book through finding the sequel at Powell's about a decade ago. A novel set in the aftermath of a rogue planet breaking apart and running into Earth in orbit is my jam.

The problem for me is Final Impact doesn't become that book until 300 pages in. When we get there it was fantastic and everything I wanted. That is not to say the first 300 pages were not good, Navarro is gifted writer who did an excellent job weaving characters together. Even though it wasn't the story I wanted I was never bored.

The pitch for was probably something to the effect of Deep Impact meets the Stand. The first 2/3 of the book is focused on a set of characters who seem to be developing magical powers as the world enters the last phase before this disaster. This was the majority of the novel, it was all well done and interesting for the most part - it just wasn't what I was looking for in this book.

It is a tricky thing narrative wise, in supernatural or science fiction it is generally hard to have more than one fantastical element in a story. Having both a rogue planet breaking part and coming destroy civilization is one fantastical element, and since It had been more than a year since I read the back cover and put this book in the TBR I was confused and surprised when characters were getting magical powers.

 The Stand is a rare case that has the pandemic and the spiritual quest, but I think that works because it is subtle and not introduced until the novel devastates us for hundreds of pages. The powers of these characters are the story for the majority of the first 300 pages. 

In that sense Final Impact feels like two novels, both are well written and engaging just two different stories. Look I understand how and why the first part sets up the second part but it just didn't work for me. The last act however was very powerful and the best thing I can say about the book is that I am excited to read the sequel at some point later in the year.


Star Trek Podcast Episode: - Interview with longtime Trek novel editor John Ordover

This episode of Star Trek Story, Myth, and Arcs I present to you my first interview episode or the First Writer's Room Episode. From 1992 to 2003 John J Ordover oversaw the print-end of Trek CU. We go deep on the creation of several Star Trek mini-series, the frustration of working with the Deep Space Nine twists and turns, consulting with Ron Moore on the Eugenics Wars, and writing two episodes of Deep Space Nine.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Star Trek Podcast Episode: Stories Strange New Worlds Should Tell!

Hello, Captain Pike fans as always each episode my intention is to explore the fundamentals of storytelling through the lens of Star Trek. My hope is that we will have fun exploring the themes while learning lessons that we can apply to our own fiction. There is no set schedule, I’ll just do one when I feel like it. Now Let’s boldly go.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Book Review: The Last Transaction by Barry N. Malzberg

The Last Transaction by Barry N. Malzberg

Paperback, 180 pages

Published November 1977 by Pinnacle Books

As a podcaster and scholar of Philip K Dick and the new wave of Science Fiction, it is nice that Hollywood has helped Phil to be remembered. Ne American Library editions and various other honors have come to the tradition and memory of Dick, but sadly all that happened after his death. to those of us who study the field and go deeper, it is somewhat frustrating when other equally as talented science fiction provocateurs get ignored. Harlan Ellison got some attention in part to his personal antics but the John Brunners and Judith Merill's of the genre are close to being lost.

Another one of those voices is Barry Malzberg who we interviewed on the podcast less than a month from his 8th decade on planet earth. With great exhaustion, he spoke of how horrible it was to see so many of the ideas in his science fiction coming true. He talked at length about his book Revelations which is soon to be re-released by D. Harlan Wilson's excellent publishing imprint Anti-Odious Press.

I read and reviewed that book last year, it was about the way mass media turned misery into profit and it was something Malzberg nailed more than a decade before the gotcha TV shows were a big deal. It is all done with the aspects you expect from the gonzo new wave sci-fi authors. Paranoid unreliable narrators, sadistic psychosexual manipulation, horrible political realities, and dark humor.

The Last Transaction is similar and like Revelations, it is uncomfortable in how the satire feels pretty close to home. An aging President losing his mind in the office is something we are watching on the news each night. While we don't have the Cold War standoff of this novel we get a pandemic. This novel is the story of the President who just lost the 1984 election and is sitting done to record his memories so they can be preserved. Eric Springer is very much an asshole and his senile memories provide the kinda unreliable narration that Malzberg loves to employ.

In some books the psycho-sexual Mysgonist moments make sense in the horrors of the story here they seem out of place and distracting from the point. It took me out of the novel. My feeling was the point was how scary it is to have a man losing his mind and be the President. Since Malzberg is still with us he has seen this cute concept become horror film worthy reality twice. It was clear last in the Regan years that his mind was slipping, and there is little doubt what is happening with Trump.

I wanted to like this more as I am generally a fan of Malzberg's work, and I thought the concept of President losing his mind written in 1977 might seem like a prophecy. That being said this novel not only gets really violently sexual for no good story reason, but the point seems dead on arrival. Springer does not seem to have much of political identity and if you are writing about America with its two-party system it is like eating a soaking wet potato chip. This story has no crunch without the partisan divide. The Last Transaction is a cake that was baked without flour in that regard. It has some interesting moments, but nothing groundbreaking or essential to check out like Revelations or Beyond Apollo.

I am glad I read this because I am going to be over the next few years I will be a gonzo new wave sci-fi completionist. If your not in that camp then there are two dozens Mala\zberg novels you should read before this one.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Book Review: The Eureka Years: Boucher and McComas's Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction 1949-1954 Edited by Annette Peltz McComas

The Eureka Years: Boucher and McComas's Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction 1949-1954 Edited by Annette Peltz McComas

Mass Market Paperback, 348 pages

Published 1982 by Bantam Books

This book came to me at an interesting time. I need to explain a little bit about why I am reading this. As co-host of Dickheads ( A Philip K. Dick) podcast, we had a long-running joke about Tony Boucher. Through my research for the various episodes I finding quotes, connections, or support given to Phil by a man named Tony Boucher. So every time I mentioned him my co-host would say "Shout to Tony." I have to admit before starting the podcast I had no idea who Tony Boucher was our how important he was not just to PKD but the Science Fiction genre as a whole. I also don't want to short change his editing part Mick McComas who played as big a role if not as directly on Phil. None the less I am researching a tribute to Boucher so when I started this I got some advice. Boucher and McComas made their biggest impact editing the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Just you know I have invited the modern editor of that same magazine for the show Gordan VanGelder and it was he who suggested this book to me. The Eureka Years is a very strange and one of a kind book that was compiled by Mick McCComa's former wife Annette. She did an amazing job compiling materials to give a scholar's dream look at the early years of this genre-defining journal. This book contains not just stories, but the letters about them and detailed history about the two men behind it. It was kinda too perfect for the project I am working on here. The introduction and preface were helpful for getting an overview of the Men and the impact of their magazine. The picture of the early days is painted in a series of letters that are published from years when they were developing the first issue. The name of the magazine that just started a FANTASY and their plan for getting it going. This is interesting because we see how they found investors, distribution, and more. Right from the beginning, they had the plan to be a deeply more thoughtful magazine than Campbell's Astounding for example. The next part of the book contains some of the early classics by well-known authors such as PKD, Asimov, Sturgeon, Damon Knight, Richard Matheson, and Ray Bradbury to name a few. Each story comes not only with the tale, but the letters that show the process of the editors. No one was above getting notes for revisions. Unlike many editors, at the time Boucher and McComas asked writers to make the changes. That is cool. The notes to Bradbury were the most detailed and interesting. they had a big impact on the Bradbury story The Exiles, changing major elements. Bradbury made the changes but it was cool to see the impact they had on that story. One of the best sections and really a must-read for aspiring writers since they give lots of great advice and few of the letters are straight-up funny. I think I will save the rest of my thoughts for the podcast, when it gets recorded and released I will post here with this review. I loved this book but I can only recommend it to people who study and teach the genre. I suppose there is alot to learn for writers as well. This, not a book you picture for the fiction. What is there is great, including an interesting story by Tony Boucher himself. Are you the Target audience? I am super stoked I read it.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Launching A New Podcast! Star Trek Story, Myth and Arcs!

Welcome to Star Trek Story, Myth and Arcs podcast it’s Five-year mission, to explore Star Trek arcs and themes seek out new story directions and boldly tell stories that no one has told before. We will discuss how Star Trek has told both good and bad stories, discuss how the elements of great storytelling can be applied to Trek and all stories in the future. This should be fun for Trekkers but I hope writers who are not fans can still learn valuable lessons about narrative.

First two episodes:

On Twitter @StarTrekArcs

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Book Review: Star Trek World Without End by Joe Haldeman

Star Trek World Without End by Joe Haldeman

Mass Market Paperback, 148 pages

Published May 1993 by Spectra (first published February 1979)

These days there are probably several hundred Star Trek novels but in the seventies, the ST novels were the only way the franchise was moving forward in the dark days between the Animated Series and the first movie. The early days of Star Trek are much more exciting in terms of crossover to very respected authors in the field of Science Fiction. In the Orignal series, there were episodes by several respected genre authors Jerome Bixby, Richard Matheson (I am Legend), George Clayton Johnson (Logan's Run), Harlan Ellison (Dangerous Visions), Norman Spinrad (Men in the Jungle)and Theodore freaking Sturgeon. Ellison was responsible for the Guardian of Forever, Spinrad the Doomsday Machine, and Surgeon invented the crazy way Vulcans reproduce. Larry Niven wrote for the far weirder Animated Series.

So it was not that big a stretch when respected science fiction writers like James Blish, Greg Bear, and the Hugo and Nebula award-winning Joe Haldeman wrote Star Trek novels. Blish most adapted and deepen the actual episodes. The 70's early Bantam novels were short and aimed to be like a single hour episode of the series. The later Pocketbooks had more epic novel feeling to them.

If you are not familiar with Haldeman he is a Vietnam vet who wrote what I consider to be the ultimate military sci-fi classic The Forever War. Yes, even over Starship Troopers which the novel was clearly a response too. Haldeman is a genius writer with decades of fantastic books but the Forever War is a must-read classic. I was really interested in his two attempts at Star Trek both in the 70's. I already reviewed the first Planet of Judgement.

One thing that makes these early books interesting is the authors were not working with the enormous canon we have come to know. They also tend to take more seriously the actual space elements of the setting. I like that this novel really plays with science fictional ideas. The Enterprise encounters a ship that was designed to fool it's inhabitants that they were on a world. The set-up is similar to the TOS episode "The World is Hollow and I have touched the sky." Unlike that story, Haldeman does all the neat Sci-fi things his mind and no need for budget make possible.

The small manufactured planet has a low gravity which leads to scenes of the crew flying around with little wings, that was probably my favorite example. Also, the planet survives by sucking the energy of passing ships, like a vampire planet. When the enterprise becomes low on energy only Scotty remains. This provides some funny and really on-point character moments, but it also gave Haldeman to take seriously that the enterprise is a spaceship. Lots of Trek writers in TV, movies, and books forget that simple factor.

Haldeman does a great job with the characters, Scotty and Spock most of all. There is a scene that was my favorite when a Klingon boards the nearly drained of energy Enterprise. Scotty has converted a transporter room for his last stand. Of course, he gets the Klingon drunk.

Is it great, or mind-blowing? No. But if you are like me a fan of Trek and Haldeman you should check it out. By the way Joe Haldeman just took part in the Facebook group "Science Fiction Book Club"'s Q and A. I asked the Author about writing this book. He said this: "They gave us a thick stack of mimeographed notions, most of which I more or less ignored, and then they turned the ms. over to some underemployed secretary to critique. That was lots of fun. Like, I had Spock say "by Occam's Razor," and they warned me "Spock does not swear."

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Video Essay: How the Picard Writers Learned the Right Lessons from The Last Jedi

Book Review: In The Garden of Rusting Gods: A Collection by Patrick Freivald

In The Garden of Rusting Gods: A Collection by Patrick Freivald

Paperback, 217 pages

Published September 2019 by Barking Deer Press

It is hard for me sometimes to write at length about short story collections. Plotting and structure are so much of what interests me in storytelling. In a collection like this one, it is much more about the atmosphere and tone, not to say plot and structure don't matter in short stories because they do. Just style and tone are so much more important in short fiction.

Freivald was a writer that I noticed just because he had an intense personality online, and a few people I respect swore by his work. That was all I really knew. I understood he had a science background, which I thought was cool, so I debated on starting with a novel or collection and came down to the idea of reading a collection. I do think that is a better way to get a feel for a writer as a whole.

There is a grim invention that dances just below the surface of all these stories. Some writers start with characters, some ideas. Freivald is a talented writer with only this collection to judge from his style feels idea based, that they are constructed neatly around a germ of a concept. Freivald is an idea machine and one story after another has intriguing elements that do one of my favorite things in horror fiction - cringe.

The opening title story provides a high concept setting that very subtly created a world that reminded me of a cyberpunk anime combo kinda thing. In a short number of pages, we are given some great world-building that never settles for info-dumps. Through-out the book but especially in this opening story the reader is trusted to use their own minds. Over-writing is a crutch many writers raised on Stephen King rely on, not Patrick Freivald. I suspect many reviews of this book will point-out that this opening story could hold the weight of an entire novel and that is very, very true.

I love when collections show writers using different muscles and voices. in the second half the book had a few shorter more experimental pieces including one of my favorites "Trigger Warning." I loved it when Freivald used the noir style in the offbeat and darkly funny piece "The Extermination Business." Other stand-outs included the disturbing Twelve Kilos and the bizarro sci-fi story Foam Ride.

The best thing I can say about this book is it sold me on Patrick Freivald and has pretty much locked in at some point I will read his novels. The only negative for me was the cover sorta didn't work for me but that doesn't really matter. Each story came with a header illustration, so overall it is a neatly put together book and the editing is top-notch for a small press. Mostly horror with neat twists on old favorites like zombies and werewolves but enough Science Fiction ideas to bring a fresh feeling to the whole package. Thumbs up.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Book Review: The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy by Stanisław Lem

The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy by Stanisław Lem

Paperback, 149 pages

Published 1985 by Mariner Books (first published 1971)

One of my missions is to promote the trans-real Science Fiction to the younger generation but I realize that I am still discovering the treasure trove still out there to read. This is my third book by Stanislaw Lem who is a Polish Sci-Fi writer who is most remembered for is excellent alien contact novel Solaris that has twice been made into a film. In this novel he out Dicks Philip K Dick with a textured political mind-fuck that will have any reader who takes seriously questioning what is real.

It is very important when considering Lem's work that he was writing from behind the Iron Curtain. This novel is translated from Polish and it makes one wonder when you read how much of the literary devices are direct translations. The first thirty-five pages, for example, are one very long paragraph that gives the book a surreal feeling from the outset. The book that follows is a surreal experience that is probably not for everyone.

I didn't know until I finished the book that it was the third in a series about space Traveler Ijon Tichy who is likely a Russian Cosmonaut although I don't think it was directly said. Anyways the story is set-off by Tichy returning to earth for a meeting of the 8th Futurological conference being held in Costa Rica.

“He also said - pointedly - that space travel nowadays was an escape from the problems of Earth. That is, one took off for the stars in the hope that the worst would happen and be done within one's absence. And indeed I couldn't deny that more than once I had peered anxiously out the porthole - especially when returning from a long voyage - to see whether or not our planet resembled a burnt potato.”

So yeah, Earth is a fucked up mess and while this gathering of future thinking leaders and writers are gathered in this massive hotel the revolution is growing underneath them. This massive hotel is used to highlight the massive class divisions. I think there is a statement here not just about the ruling class but also intellectuals who are largely insulated from the effects of the global crisis. Throughout the book, the Futurologists who are a device standing in for the genre community suggest many funny possible futures. Like the Japanese delegation who suggests tall buildings that would have all the needs of life contained in one location, not that different from the concept of walkable neighborhoods.

It seems that those on the ground are optimistic about the future. Bombs and attacks on the conference happen over and over but the meeting goes on. While Cli-fi is common today it is cool to see a work tackle the subject from behind the Iron curtain. Lem was not alone as Brunner had just tackled the subject in Stand on Zanzibar and won the Hugo for it. This book, however, is a satire and despite tackling same subject is hilarious at times. This book has more in common with Kurt Vonnegut.

“Books are no longer read but eaten, not made of paper but of some informational substance, fully digestible, sugar-coated.”

That is one funny example, but once the meeting is on we learn that the opposing forces are employing Hulluccigenics to effect the meeting, this leads the academics to join the battle and I think here Lem was making a statement about Science Fiction writers of the new wave who were part of the social justice movements but maybe I am overthinking it.

I don't think you can spoil this novel but he point becomes clear when the main character Tichy is shot and has to be flash-frozen until a future when he can have his life saved. This ends up being the year 2038. Tichy wakes up in a world that is not the utopia his colleagues wanted but it is also not exactly the dystopia they feared. This future dominated by Psychems is a very weird drug-induced future where people at least believe they are happy. Virtual reality induced by drugs about thirty years before The Matrix.

Comedy, Tragedy, and plenty of thought experiments all mixed in with hilarious wordplay and prose experiments that jump off the page and twist the reader's brain as much as any drug. Lem is a genius working on a Vonnegut level here. I think this is a great example of proto-bizarro absurdist science fiction. Must read if that sounds like your jam.

“Anyhow, the criterion of common sense was never applicable to the history of the human race. Averroës, Kant, Socrates, Newton, Voltaire, could any of them have believed it possible that in the twentieth century the scourge of cities, the poisoner of lungs, the mass murderer and idol of millions would be a metal receptacle on wheels, and that people would actually prefer being crushed to death inside it during frantic weekends exoduses instead of staying, safe and sound, at home?”

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Book Review: China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh

China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh

Paperback, 313 pages

Published April 15th 1997 by Orb Books (first published March 1992)

Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (1993)

Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel (1992)

Locus Award for Best First Novel (1993)

James Tiptree Jr. Award (1992)

Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men's Science Fiction/Fantasy (1993)

China Mountain Zhang is a debut novel? Really? This forward-thinking and groundbreaking work was released in 1992? Wow. I admit this is my first time reading Maureen F. McHugh, I had it in my TBR forever, I don't even remember where I bought, but I assumed I just saw it on the shelf at a used book store and thought it sounded good. I was pushed over the edge to read it when Luke Barrage on the Science Fiction Book Review Podcast gave it high marks.

In the time when this novel was written, the USSR had recently collapsed. In hindsight, the possibility of that country falling apart doesn't seem that weird but in 1984 no science fiction writers were imagining a future without the Soviet Union. One of the things that makes this novel so impressive in the early 90s McHugh saw a future where the United States had the same thing happen to it. This became eerie as I read this turning the coronavirus shut down and the country is on the verge of an economic collapse that this novel predicts. (p.290) Not to forget that the 21st century is often labeled "The Chinese Century" as only two superpowers remain, and Chinese influence is growing all the time. In the world of this novel shows a totally Chinese century. The job of science fiction is not to predict, any of the greats in the field will tell you that but when you read about mass shootings in John Brunner's books from the sixties or the Chinese century in this novel from 1992 it is still impressive.

On paper, this might not seem like the kinda book I would enjoy. First of all as a storyteller I am very plot-driven, and while character and setting are important to me a book that relies almost entirely on just being a slice of life normally wouldn't be my jam. That said the world-building is some of the best I have ever read, and I really enjoy that. It is subtle and naturally done with very fine touches to make this world feel well lived in. The only thing that pulled me a little out of the story was the chapters set on Mars, but that is just the science being inaccurate. On that tangent, I am fine with a surreal Bradbury-ian or Burrough-ish surreal sci-fi Mars when the novel is consistent. The problem here is that the rest of the novel felt realistic to me. This is one minor nitpick I have.

China Mountain Zhang is a well formated for a slice of life novel that really doesn't use twists. It starts with Zhang our title character and spins out to a few different characters from there. The characters do have arcs but they are very subtle. Through the various point of view characters, we get different windows into post-revolution communist Chinese influenced America, An Arctic research station, a Chinese Mars farm colony, and a Chinese university. There are short elements of cyberpunk that is peppered through-out, people in this future be engineered to network and share data.

The Stereotype of Sci-fi is that the settings overshadow the characters, but this is not the case. Zhang, Alexi, and San-Xiang are products of this would but they are fully developed characters.To a certain degree, each of them are total subjects to the forces of their world. That is something that we who currently in quarantine thanks to a virus all relate too. San-Xiang has to get surgery to not appear what this culture deems as ugly, Zhang who is half Latino gets gene therapy to look more Chinese, both things that seem hard to understand in our largely politically sensitive 21st century, but the century in this novel is so very different. They want desperately to matter in this culture and be able to assimilate into the Chinese motherland. The main character is gay and the book was given an award for gay men's Sci-fi, but honestly, I didn't notice he was until late in the book.

The political theory of the novel is laid out very clearly in two info-dumps that happened to work for me but might come off as heavy-handed to some. This book is not pro-capitalism but it is very far from promoting communism. In that sense, I don't know if I can call this a traditional dystopia. I mean the problems with communism are best illustrated When Zhang is assigned a new apartment building that has no water above the fifth floor. This is a great critique of Mao and Soviet Style communism but In reality, the 21st-century version has enough capitalism to look more privileged than anything dystopic. Again McHugh's job was not to predict.

This novel simply explores the idea of a Chinese century dialed to 11. The second civil war of this novel might seem like outlandish a few years ago but the one thing this novel missed was how the partisan divide would drive this fight. Told through a Mosaic a style That John Brunner brought to genre in the late Sixties with Stand on Zanzibar is more common today, and maybe best used in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Unlike the those two books, the characters are more closely tied together and this novel is not bloated. It is a short and effective read, perfect length of around three hundred pages.

I enjoyed this book, but I think it is more of an important book than a fun one. I think it has a lot to teach about world-building and it holds a very revealing mirror to China in the late 20th century. Worthy of all the awards and as this second great depression looms I hope McHugh is not right about the collapse of this economy and how that will go down in a Chinese century.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Book Review: Dead Sky By Weston Ochse

Dead Sky By Weston Ochse

Paperback, 480 pages

Published November 2019 by Solaris

The first book in this series was a masterpiece of military horror and science fiction. Military sci-fi in the last 50 years comes in a pretty standard mold, one that has been fashioned over and over again based on the Heinlein Starship Troopers template. Lots of great works have been done in the mold from the Forever War by Vietnam war vet Joe Handleman to Card's Ender's Game and Scalzi's Old Man's War. I know Weston and I both agree on last year's The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley as a fantastic entry in the genre. Being that Weston is Vet and long time military contractor it gives him special insight and like Handleman he used that insight to create a great entry in that mold with the Grunt series. (I have only read book one so far, but it is really good).

As good as Grunt Life was Burning Sky took on the same important theme of PTSD and did something rare in military sci-fi it broke new ground. It could be said that This series is more military horror than Sci-fi and the second book is more horror than the first. We are dealing with supernatural creatures, not aliens. The thing that made the first book special to me is that it also dealt with the experiences of trauma, reality, and sense of being all through the lens of PTSD. That is why I was so surprised that when I interviewed Weston for my podcast (link below) and he said he hadn't read Philip K Dick yet.

Like me take a quick aside...While he fixed that because he made reference to the PKD book Cosmic Puppets that has the same demons as his book in it. Very funny scene by the way and The interview contains the moment where we at Dickheads put the characters of this book on the trail! (Ha!)

Burning Sky was a masterpiece in my opinion and it is still, in my opinion, Weston's strongest work to date. It has what is reality aspect of it that makes it a true story of post Traumatic pain. It gives that novel an extra weight that is hard to top. That is my biggest problem with Dead Sky. It is fun and exciting. It has great moments of suspense and character moments. It never reaches the jaw-dropping reveals of the first book. Sometimes it is hard when the mystery is revealed. Jaws is not nearly as scary when you see the mechanical shark.

Dead Sky is not a bad book, it is a really fun book. I read it pretty fast, and Weston's grasp of characters is strong enough that I stayed up late reading it. The biggest problem this novel has is the powerhouse of the first book. The first book dealt with heavy issues of the unending trauma of violence and war. I feel this was more action fun and less of the themes mixing with the plot. That is what was so impressive about the first book is those themes mixed in so perfectly.

It is hard to talk about the plot without spoiling the first book. The main character who goes by the name Boy Scout propels some of the book's best moments with one of his new skills. The Trauma sticks to hit in the form of connection quite literally to his demons. One of the strongest aspects of the book is Boy Scout's relationship with Sister Rene the character that teaches him this skill.

I like Dead Sky a lot. But I LOVED Burning Sky. It was fun and worth it to spend time with these characters. This series is done with this second book but the characters might not be. Either way I recommend both but it is hard to go wrong with Weston.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Book Review: The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells

Paperback, 186 pages

Published May 2017 by Gollancz (first published 1896)

SF Masterworks edition!

“An animal may be ferocious and cunning enough, but it takes a real man to tell a lie.”

I know it is amazing that at this point in my life I have never read this Wells classic. While I have read The Time Machine and War of The Worlds multiple times and even Food of the Gods I was nervous the last few decades about reading Doctor Moreau because I feared that it glorified animal experimentation. I know, I could not be more wrong. I don't think ole HG was actually a liberationist but the message in its 1896 way is without a doubt a form of early animal rights.

If is hard to deny passages like...

“Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence, begun in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau —”

Wells often made messages a huge part of his work, it was undeniable that Time Machine commented on the still controversial issue of evolution something he was familiar with having worked as a Lab assistant with one Darwin's associates. The War of The Worlds was clearly a message to the people of his Britain about their ever-expanding colonial empire. Food of the Gods if I remember correctly was about class inequality.

So there are many messages in this novel besides animal rights, also the hubris of science gone mad, and the nature of what makes us human. That to me is the heart of what makes this story so scary, the blurred lines between nature and humanity.

I'll get back to that in a moment but first the plot. I know there have been attempts to make films based on this work but they are mostly terrible. The closest we probably got was when Richard Stanley (Color out of Space) was fired during pre-production in the 90s. Do yourself a favor and listen to the Post-Mortem with Mick Garris interview with Stanley released a few months ago. The story behind the movie is amazing.

TIODM is a short and very Victoria novel, told in the first person that is better executed than Wells earlier novel The Time Machine. I have laughed when I have seen this work called Lovecraftian and have to remind people that this pre-dates ole HP and was likely an influence on him.

While this novel is delightfully creepy and weird, it is told without Lovecraft purple prose and a serious economy of words. Wells doesn't waste time. To me this felt like it could have been Pendrick's journal but you have to believe he was a good writer. Very few first-person narratives work for me in that way because it often feels "written" a good example of natural-sounding first person is Stephen King's Delores Claiborne.

Oh yeah the Story, it is about Pendrick the survivor of a shipwreck who is rescued by Montgomery who is on his way to re-join his master the mad scientist Doctor Moreau. Through a series of excellently laid out beats of suspense, Penrick learns that the disgraced British vivisector Moreau has come to this remote place to conduct his experiments. Those include spliced genes of humans and animals.

This is amazing science fiction considering it was written in the 19th century long before the genre had a name. Indeed Wells called his works Scientific Romances. This book is body horror, that is almost a hundred years before Barker and Cronenberg would make that a thing. The question, however, is what is the more freaky part? The man-beasts or the speeches that Doctor Moreau gives. I think the later...

I know that Wells mostly comes off as stuffy to modern eyes, but I think this novel was a pretty smooth read. To me, it is the most vivid of Wells novels and the most timeless there is very little that draws attention to the fact that the novel is one hundred and twenty four years old. It is more powerful and scary than most of the horror fiction today. That is one reason it should be read. Also, I loved this quote:

“It is when suffering finds a voice and sets our nerves quivering that this pity comes troubling us.”

What we do to animals has not progressed far enough in the years since this book was written. It is often in the case of animals that humans are afraid to look at the horrors they are personally responsible for. That is often because the suffering directly benefits humans. From flavor to entertainment nothing is off-limits and sadly it is the law. I hope there is a change before this book gets much older but that is up to us all.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Book Review: The Naked Sun by Issac Asimov

The Naked Sun by Issac Asimov

Mass Market Paperback, 15th printing, 208 pages

Published 1996 by HarperCollins Publishers (first published December 1956)

I have no idea if Asimov was planning a trilogy featuring Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw when he wrote the first book Caves of Steel, it is hard to say because it was decades between books two and three. None the less The Naked Sun is an excellent sequel to Caves of Steel. That first book was a very character-driven spin on the detective noir that was augmented by the fantastic world-building. The world of the first book was earth in the far future, although set in the same universe as the Foundation centuries before the events of that series. Part of the strength of the first book was the dynamic between Baley and Olivaw. One of the complaints about genre works from this era (the 50s) and Asimov, in general, is that he was more focused on the gee-whiz than the actual characters.

This book could be accused of that since it the main thrust of the novel is clearly the world of Solaria. I read this and am writing this review during the major American shut-down for the coronavirus. Social distancing has become one of the main concepts of life on planet earth at the moment. In the world of this novel that is the way of life. Solaria is an underpopulated world where the robot servants outnumber human colonists. Everyone lives at a distance from each other and even married couples only "see" each other. Contact is not a social norm.

So not only is this a cool sci-fi world, but it is the perfect set-up for a sci-fi murder mystery novel. Even better conceptionally as a sequel to Caves of Steel, it is a genius reversal since the overcrowded New York of the first novel is so central to that story. Baley and Olivaw are important to the story but their dynamic is less important since the arc of their being forced together was solved. Early in the book Baley is forced to take this off-world mission, and a part of me wished we had more Baley and Olivaw NY mysteries and in my headcanon, they exist.

So Asimov gets Baley off-world, the how of this is completely ignored he just gets to this far off world by "ways" and that is fine, the trip was not the point. Once on this world, the mystery which I won't spoil is a great very Sherlock Holmes-ish spin. It even gets to the point when Baley is quoting the master fictional detective when you eliminate the possible... I don't need to re-type that do I? Asimov does really great social and world-building, some of the new characters have interesting elements but the weakness is that our returning characters don't get developed.

One element that was underplayed in this book was R.Daneel having to fake as a spacer. It is there but very lightly. Baley's conflict of leaving earth and more importantly his family is touched on in the opening chapters and in the last few. That aspect seems to get ignored in between. Good stuff is happening. The mystery elements are carefully plotted. It is the world built on social isolation that I think will really interest people at this time. What it says about our culture at this exact moment is interesting, but the motivations are not close. If you are looking for a science fiction novel that comments on our current situation you should look more closely at The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner. The benefit of that book is it is a warning and reminder it could be worse.

None the less The Naked Sun is a fun little novel overflowing with fun Asimov-ian ideas and concepts. The mystery works and it is short. I like these novels and their simplicity so much better than many of thew high concept novels of Asimov. Give me a couple months and I will get to book three soon.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Book Review: Deus X By Norman Spinrad

Deus X By Norman Spinrad

Mass Market Paperback, 176 pages

Published December 1992 by Spectra

Reading this book for the first time in 2020 or after it will seem dated but like many classics of Science Fiction, it is important to remember when they were written. It is very important when judging this masterful short Sci-fi novel to remember that it was written and released in 1992 one year into Clinton's first term. Norman Spinrad is still with us and commenting on the world, he was even a guest on our podcast. Long lost writers like Brunner or Asimov often get credit for being ahead of the times. This novel is amazingly forward-thinking for the time it was written. Respect to Spinrad for that.

This review will be spoiler-heavy but it is somewhat hard to find book at this point and I think the most important thing this novel does is open up discussion of themes common in Science Fiction. Can we survive? and if technology saves us will we still be human?

Before I get detailed about this novel let me point out that this novel is in part a Climate Change novel, decades before Cli-fi was a literary movement, before many in the world admitted that this was a crisis or concern. Next, let's consider that this novel is also a work of cyberpunk, now Spinrad pokes fun at the literary movement that was inspired by his generation of New wave sci-fi writers. This is done when the narrator basically admits that he is in the fringes of a cyberpunk story.

Marley Phillipe is a cool character riding out the climate apocalypse with an increasingly robotic body and sailboat called the Mellow Yellow. His plan to die peacefully and get high. His plan is interrupted when the Catholic Church recruits him for a mission. You see the population of the world to escape the slow death of the run-away Greenhouse effect has created a virtual world called the Big Board. The idea is that most people have uploaded their minds to the Big Board.

This presents the catholic church with a conflict. They don't believe the cyber minds are actual souls but with the world dying they need to preserve their history. So they uploaded the memory of Father De Leone and his mind has since disappeared from the Big Board. The Church brings Marley to Rome to investigate, and he eventually learns that hackers are holding his mind hostage and their demands are simple. Recognize our virtual souls.

I read this book during the stay at home order of the Coronavirus it was impossible not to see similar nature to the Big Board. We have all become home units plugged into the internet which is becoming the social interface. This book takes place after Earth has become dead, the garden of Eden has thrown us out and the big question becomes is this new existence actually living? What if our cyber selves were trying to prove they had a soul?

This is a very provocative novel and amazing for the time it was written. This is a short and powerful work.

Consider this from page 135:

"Was this what God saw, if there was one, the whole wide world and all these space probes and sat-feeds besides, from the inside of Creation? Was this what Pierre De Leone saw from inside the system itself?

Deserted cityscapes. Entertainment channel Disneyworlds. Oceans Lapping against the great seawalls. Sat imagines of melting polar caps, spreading deserts. Eavesdropped videophone conversations. News Channels. corporate systems babbling to each other..."

"...Were these to be our Spiritual successors ?"

and two pages later...

"The World out there is dying. The world in here... From this perspective, it was all too clear. When the biosphere is gone we will go on."

Deus X questions what it means to be human, and what it means to be spiritual. The last barrier before humans can transition to a digital existence is the spiritual question. The great fear of this novel is a species taking that last step, one willing to destroy the planet that sustains itself can feel better about if their digital soul is one it can reckon with their god. Goddamn Spinrad wrote a hell of a novel here and when you consider how early into the internet we were at this point it makes it more impressive.

You should read it. Big thumbs up.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Book Review: In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction by Damon Knight

In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction by Damon Knight

Trade Paperback, 462 pages

Published November 2014 by Advent Publishers (first published 1956)

One major effect of doing the Dickheads podcast is that I have become much more serious about being a scholar of the genre. While the title of the book suggests that it covers "modern" sci-fi you have to realize that the first edition of this book was published in 1955 and despite editions in 1967 and 2014 the books in the genre it covers is far from modern. This book first got on my radar because I was looking for background info on Editor/Author Tony Boucher (who wrote the introduction)for an upcoming tribute episode. When I saw what this book was I knew I had to read it.

The concept of this book is simple. In the early days of the genre, I am talking the 30s right after Hugo Gernsback coined the term Scientific Fiction that later got shorten to Science Fiction and eventually Sci-fi deep critical analysis of the genre didn't exist. There were short reviews in the Amazing Stories and fanzines of the time but most came off like catalog entries more than thoughtful reviews. Enter Oregon writer Damon Knight whose most famous work is the short story "To Serve Man" which was turned into a Twilight Zone episode with the famous "It's a cookbook!" twist.

While that is the only time Knight's work penetrated the mainstream he was a titan in the genre from the early 40s until his death in 2002. He was the founder of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), cofounder of the Milford Writer's Workshop with author Judith Merrill and his wife Author Kate Wilham., and co-founder of the Clarion Writers Workshop. While he wrote hundreds of short stories and a dozen novels it is his criticism and non-fiction history of the early New York writers The Futurians (Reviewed here three months ago)that are most exciting to me.

While this book is clearly not a complete history of the early 20th century Science Fiction that is the purpose it will serve at this point. While heavily colored by Knight's very strong opinions, this book taught me of several dozen important works from that era that I had never heard of. Several I am excited to read. These are not just works of standard genre titans, although the works of Heinlein, Asimov and Bradbury are all covered. That is great but what excited me more was learning about mainstream novels of the era with speculative elements and titles that came from Russian authors. That is just two examples. Knight has the genre of the era covered in detail. I don't know how else I would have ever heard about We by Eugene Zamiatin which sounds like a Russian 1984, but it predates the Orwell novel having been banned by the Russians in the late 20s.

Some of the highpoints of this book include autobiographical chapters that explain how Knight joined and interacted with famous editors and writers, help to found some of the genre's most famous workshops and his method of writing his own stories. His breakdowns of novels from genre classics to lost novels are brutally honest and times came off too harsh to me. While I agreed with some of his critiques there were moments I found myself shaking my head as he tore classics to shreds. Knight respected Bradbury for example as a writer but thought he was a joke as a science fiction writer. He hated novels like Matheson's I Am Legend and was not a fan of the author who I consider to be one of the best use a typewriter.

His takedown of Van Vogt's World of Null-A (The last book I read before this) is almost as much of a classic as the novel he ripped shreds. Indeed he devotes an entire chapter to the absolute homicide of Van Vogt's novel that becomes a brutally harsh takedown of tropes and themes the author used over and over. This chapter is the best example of what Knight does as a critic. He dissects plot holes, studies what works and doesn't about the characters and clearly was not impressed by the science. This kinda cracked me up because Philip K Dick always listed this novel as one of his biggest influences. Knight is really picking Van Vogt apart for many of the things Dick did constantly, like random plotting, think characters and random directions of the narrative. That said Knight enjoyed PKD's first novel the Solar Lottery as was not as hard on him as some.

"This is architectural plotting, a rare and inhumanly difficult thing; and who in blazes ever expected Dick to turn up as one of the few masters of it." (67 edition)

So Knight devotes entire chapters to Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Sturgeon, Fort, Kuttner and Moore, Blish, and Dick. Histories and backgrounds on the editors are there and valuable. Essays about writing workshops, symbolism, using science defining Science Fiction, writing Science Fiction(really great essay!) and how he saw the genre going.

I loved this book. I think as I work through the two dozen titles I added to my good reads 'Want To Read' shelf I think the impact of this book will continue long after I finished it. I think this will be a valuable book that will remain on my shelf for reference. I don't think this is a must-read but for fans of the genre but for scholars or writers serious about the craft this book is pretty goddamn valuable.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Book Review: The World of Null-A by A.E. Van Vogt

The World of Null-A by A.E. Van Vogt

paperback, 272 pages

Published October 2002 by Orb Books (first published 1945)

Retro Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (1996)

Some times a book, a film or a band is more important for who they inspired, and I went into this book for that reason. Of course, Van Vogt was a name I had seen on spines on the shelf as a Science Fiction reader/shopper many times but I am sad to say I never read him before this. My original inspiration to buy the book was our Philip K Dick podcast. PKD himself credited Van Vogt as his biggest influence even going as far as to say that his debut novel Solar Lottery was derivative of Null-A. That made me curious. Since then I was invited to be on a panel for the SFF Audio podcast about This book. I will add a link when that is available. Keep in mind it was Van Vogt at a convention that told PKD in the fifties "You ain't gettin' nowhere writing short stories kid." I am sure he didn't sound like Jimmy Cagney or call him kid but I like to believe that he said it that way.

The history of this novel is interesting, it was published in Astounding magazine August through October of 1945, starting the month that the first atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and finishing a month after they surrendered. That means that the Canadian author was writing this novel during the events of World War II and at a time when the events were still in doubt. The novel I read now had been revised in both 1948 and slightly again in 1970 but when the book is filled with Roboplanes and weapons called the Vibrator it is clear that the novel maintains the wonderfully 40s ness at the heart.

It is the story of Gilbert Gosseyn (pronounced go sane) who wakes up in his second body on the eve of the Machine Games, this is a lawless month when players compete in various ways to earn a spot living on a Venus colony. That colony you see has grown into The Null-A system - a lawless utopia that sounded like an anarchist activist's idea of post-civil war Spain. The plot is complicated, something as a reader of PKD I am used to. The story on the surface looks to be like The Purge or Hunger Games but it goes into immortals and space opera later. There are wars with Galatic empires, massive AI's and lots of crazy weird elements.

You see the influence in the paranoid 'who and what am I?' nature of Gosseyn. He has died and is not sure who he is and finds out there are more copies of him running around. It was written for Campbell in the 40s so there is a supermen plot, Gosseyn, and his foes wonder if he can keep moving his mind and became immortal. That is not all the novel,, it is a vehicle to explore political ideas that was clearly an influence not just on PKD but the genre as a whole.

Van Vogt has said that the serial version published in 1945 was flawed and that each edition he was more comfortable with. He also admitted during this time he was writing the novel similar to the style to how PKD wrote High Castle. He didn't consult the IChing, but in the same way he let his dreams dictate the direction of the story. This prompted the criticism of author Damon Knight in his critical study of the genre to say that Null- A "abounds in contradictions, misleading clues, and irrelevant action...It is [van Vogt's] habit to introduce a monster, or a gadget, or an extra-terrestrial culture, simply by naming it, without any explanation of its nature."

The World of Null-A is a flawed novel by today's standards but you can't into reading a genre novel that is almost 80 years and not give it a certain amount of leeway. Considering when it is written it is delightfully weird. In many ways, it is all over the place. I think it is important to remember the science fiction novel as we think of it was not nearly as established. For decades still, novels from even giants in the field were still being serialized in magazines.

This is a must-read for true scholars of the field because the influence it had was so intense and deep. Is it a timeless masterpiece? No, but it is a great example of the evolution of the genre. It also has a great ending, fun action, crazy twists and most importantly tons of weird ideas that are made weirder by how out of date it is. Thumbs up from me.

Book Review/ Podcast: Lies Inc. (Unteleported Man) by Philip K Dick

Lies Inc. (Unteleported Man) by Philip K Dick

Paperback, 202 pages

Published March 2004 by Vintage (first published July 1983)

The tortured path this book took to publication should qualify it for a bit of a hall pass. We will get into the path to publication, rejection, re-write, death, ghost re-writes and found re-writes in the Fullerton collection. That said this is really two books that are forced together, each part has interesting points, although the original novella makes more pulpy sense there is fun weird stuff in the bad trip additions. Full podcast coming but with all the Virus stuff not sure when we will record keep your eyes peeled.

Friday, March 20, 2020

TV Review: Man in the High Castle season three.

No heavy spoilers...

I just finished watching Season three of Amazon's adaptation and expansion of Philip K Dick's lone Hugo award-winning novel Man in the High Castle. As a PKD expert, I was watching it slowly and carefully. Really the first season is the only one actually based on the novel, and even though Phil outlined a novel and wrote a few chapters of a sequel the show is not really based on that. Season 2 has a few concepts from Owl in the Daylight (the sequel) it is mostly an expansion of the characters and setting.

I think season three of High Castle is a good slow burn speculative drama but it becomes something very different from the source material. Season 2 had some clumsy sci-fi that is rooted in the choice to change Haawthrone Abensen's stories of the other world from a novel to films. The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (novel in the novel) makes internal sense. The films in the show make visual sense but not logical sense. It requires almost a mythical explanation, verses the clearly multi-verse explanation of the novel.

The expansion of the novel on the show becomes a story about resistance to fascism. Of course, I think that is a good theme, but the original point of the novel has been lost. The message PKD most honed in on - was gee whiz look how scary it would be if the bad guys won but the danger of false historical narrative. How much can you really trust the history you are being taught? Does bias itself create false reality?

I think Anti-fascism is a running theme in PKD's fiction, So I don't think this was a bad direction for the show. His anti-nazism took a weird turn in his second novel The World Jones Made. But the novel treated life in the occupied parts of America as a mundane horror. The show expands the horror and cruelty of Nazism to a more realistic level that portrays the horrors of the holocaust. For whatever reason, the Japanese west while authoritarian did reflect the level of horror as the east. I think the survivors of Nanking might have thought the depiction soft.

The natural reaction is to escalate the resistance. Major characters die and some were surprises for me. Rufus Sewell continues to amaze as John Smith, his storyline being the most interesting to me. As the intensity of the drama ramps up so in the science fiction, I suspect season four is going even deeper there.

Overall I like the series and think that it is an important showcase for PKD, my biggest hope for the show is it will continue to spark interest in source material and various works of the author. Ultimately I think the novel is a masterpiece and the show is about as much as we could hope for.

Our Dickheads episode about the novel:

Really cool interview we did with academics about Man in the High Castle:

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Book Review: Weirdbook #42 (John Shirley issue) Doug Draa (Editor)

Weirdbook #42 (John Shirley issue)Doug Draa (Editor)

Paperback, 158 pages

Published February 24th 2020 by Wildside Press

I have a couple issues of the weird book over the 42 issues but this is the first one that I took the step of ordering. Before it was always at a convention or buying a copy from one of the authors published inside. This was a must order as soon as it was available. John Shirley is without a doubt my favorite authors who straddle the neutral zone between Sci-fi, horror, bizarro and high literature. You don't get special issues unless your genius is recognized and he had the Bram Stoker and International horror guild awards to prove it.

For me, any amount of praise seems under rating when you consider that Shirley has a Masterpieces in both horror (Wetbones) and Science Fiction (City Come a-Walkin) and arguments could be made for many other titles getting that praise. He is the man William Gibson called Patient Zero and Clive Barker called an adventurer.

So yeah Weirdbook gave him a whole issue and since he wrote it all it would easy to see this as another Shirley collection. No for a couple reasons it is different. First off his collections from Heatseeker, Living Shadows and the award-winning Black Butterflies are incredible.

This special issue has a complete short novel. None of his collections have that. This issue has several poems. The collections don't have that. Five short stories including two I absolutely loved. This is a big deal because since Shirley moved back close to his native Oregon he has been focused mostly on music. His band John Shirley and Screaming Geezers just opened for Blue Oyster Cult in Portland. Exciting as Shirley has contributed lyrics to BOC for years. The point is new Shirley fiction has not been coming out as often as us fans would like.

So how was it? The novel Sword of Atlantis has a Jack Vance. Fritz Leiber's dark fantasy feel, it is really well done but not my favorite style of story. The level of inventiveness on the page makes this novel stand-out.

The highlights for me were the super Lovecraftian style story Broken on the Wheel of Time. It will remind Shirley fans of his collection Lovecraft Alive. Shirley has found the Lovecraft vibe in a major way in the last couple of years. Again it is the inventive weird creative element that makes this story of alien invasion and time travel really work. Told from two different journals this story drips Lovecraft vibe.

There are also two excellent very short stories The Nodding Angel that is very powerful and a sorta Twilight zoney feeling one called "That Ambulance Again" which made me laugh a bit.

This is a must-own for Shirley fans, is it the best introduction to him, Black Butterflies might be a better place to start but read both. I kinda wish the book came with an interview or more information about John but I was super happy with it.

Book Review: We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria by Wendy Pearlman
Hardcover, 352 pages Published June 2017 by Custom House

This will be a short review as this is not my typical book and I am not sure how useful my thoughts on it will be. I choose to read this book as I am working on a novel right now that has a Syrian refugee as a main character. So this was the first of a couple of books and documentaries I read/watched in order to get a feeling for the conflict and the people. It taught first and foremost that even as a person who follows global political issues I didn't know 1% of what I thought I did. The author Wendy Pearlman is an academic from Northwestern university but she speaks the local languages and has years of studies in the middle east.

Drawn from interviews with over 300 refugees over a four-year span this is a really great way to get a full picture of the conflict and history in the region. Pearlman of course not only had to earn the trust of the people she was interviewing she had to pick and assemble the best and most important stories. Then she had to format them into a solid story. All this was well done. It is clear and concise which is no minor task when you consider that it is one of the most confusing and hard to understand conflicts going on currently. Russia, Kurds, Assad, Isis, Americans, and various homegrown aspects of the conflict. Lots of information to put together and thankfully it is well done.

I wish every conflict had such an easy to digest history. It is helpful. One thing it gave me was increased compassion for the refugees and the terrible position Assad has put them in. It is amazing that that piece of shit is willing to put his whole region in misery just so he had held on to power. The opposite of a leader. Unbelievable that people in the country continue to fight for him.

So yeah I learned many things and I hope it will be reflecting in the finished product of my book.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Book Review: Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime by Sean Carroll

Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime by Sean Carroll

Hardcover, 368 pages

Published September 2019 by Dutton

This book is not for everyone. Sean Carroll is an author I reviewed before with his epic book about the universe the Big Picture. I feel more deeply connected to this author because I know his voice well. I listen every week to his podcast mindscape that I often describe as Sean Carrol talks to other geniuses. I was familiar with these ideas and the many-worlds theories before not just as a Carroll podcast listener but as a huge Sci-fi nerd and Philip K Dick Podcaster. We have talked about Many-worlds in a pseudo-science 60's way a lot.

I am not going to pretend for one minute that I am able to process more than the basic ideas here. I read this book quickly because whenever math or the Nitty-Gritty of how particles spin. I really enjoyed the history of discovery and how Carroll weaves the methods that the greats in science came to the various theories that make Quantum science. I know this will sound corny but my love for this topic has roots in my favorite childhood horror movie John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness that was the first place that a young me heard of Quantum psychics.

This is primarily an introduction to one of the most debated issues in the study of spacetime, as such I think it is a good introduction but the big bottom line in this review do you enjoy this stuff? I do and still felt the need to skip a few parts. I enjoy Sean Carroll's books because he helps takes universe-spanning Ideas and boils them down.

Separated into three sections, part one is where we get the majority of the history. This part is called Spooky based on the idea that even Einstein in the early days found these issues to be hard to deal with. In this section, Carroll sets up the questions that we are going to ponder. The second part is called Splitting and gets into what it all means. Part three Spacetime is where most of the interesting theories happen.

The most interesting concepts for me were near the end. "It is plausible that the symmetry between space and time that we are familiar with from relativity isn't built into Quantum Gravity." Oh no he didn't? Was there more to the universe than Einstein could see? sure and towards the end Carroll questions if Space is even part of the equation and this tiny level. Another part I enjoyed was one of the last chapters that explained more of the science behind Black holes, as Hawking was quoted in the book Black holes ain't so black.

I enjoyed Carroll's last book more than this one but that could have as much to do with the epic themes of that one. This one was designed to be a purely academic exercise, while the Big Picture dealt with the point where the rubber meets the road between cosmology and philosophy.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Book Review: The Churchgoer by Patrick Coleman

The Churchgoer by Patrick Coleman

Paperback, 368 pages

Published July 2019 by Harper Perennial

I don't know how I never had this book on my radar, but it was the announcement that FX had bought the rights and attached True Detective creator Nik Pizzolatto to run the show. While it is getting a new name "Redeemer" it will star Matthew McConaughy as a far more handsome version of the lead Mark Haines than I had in my head. Not to shabby for a debut novel. I was already interested in those powerful storytellers involved but then I saw that the author was from here in San Diego, but there is more. It takes place here in San Diego, and to put a cherry on my interest The author got his MFA in my freaking hometown at Indiana University. Maybe he and I should catch an IU basketball game together? ha-ha.

Ok, I love noir and I have been in old pulp sci-fi land because of the podcast for months so it seemed to be a good time to get into a so-cal murder mystery. The story of Mark Haines a security guard from the North County San Diego city of Oceanside. It is an interesting place that is better explained in the book than I could possibly do justice here. Mark has a couple mysteries in his life, one is the hitchhiker he took in she seems to be connected to his former church and the other is his co-worker who is murder right next to him.

Oh yeah, that is important Mark is an ex-pastor, ex-dad turned surf bum. He is not an ex-cop or down on his luck detective but he tries hard to be one when these mysteries come into his life. Much of the novel is focused on this reluctant detective that is forced to look at the spiritual path he walked away from. While there were times that it reminded me of two other San Diego surfer mysteries the FX show Terriers and Don Winslow's early novel Dawn Patrol. Since I loved both of those that is not shade but a compliment.

As a San Diegan I liked seeing the city reflected in this character's eyes. That is indeed the real spine of this novel is Mark. ultimately I feel this novel is a character piece. He wasn't happy to walk away from his church, family, and reputation. The mystery is interesting but honestly, I was more interested in how everything affected Mark. The answers were secondary to me, I wanted to know Mark better as I turned pages.

The writing is strong and the characters rich, the locations were detailed and well-drawn through the character lens. If there is a negative to be was the ending well a little drawn out. There was a long time when the character was stuck underground in a bunker, and I thought that went on a little long. I think some will complain about a slow pace but I was drawn in right away. I thought the setting and the characters provided plenty of hooks.

For a book that has a fair bit of religious cynicism, I think the anti-religious aspects were not as thick as I expected. Some reviewers consider this book to be anti-religion I think that it is not preachy myself. Most important it is a California noir with strong characters and Patrick Coleman is a writer to watch!

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Book Review: Dead Astronauts by Jeff Vandermeer

Dead Astronauts by Jeff Vandermeer

Hardcover, 323 pages

Published December 2019 by MCD

I really hard to think about how to write this review, and I just finished reading it an hour ago. I should probably sit on it but hey I will give it a shot. My experience with Vandermeer is strictly reaching Annihilation a few years back and enjoying following his online musings. I much preferred the first Southern reach novel to the film although I liked both. I had always meant to read more. When I saw my library had a copy of this I jumped at the chance to read it.

Dead Astronauts is not follow up to Vandermeer's last book exactly but it takes in the same post-apocalyptic world. I didn't know this until I finished the book. The fact that it is not being marketed that way makes me think maybe it wasn't that important to know. That said reading this book is a little like floating in space without anything solid to hold on too. So the very first question you have to ask yourself is that a reading experience you like? Vandermeer is a talented and smart wordsmith and there is no doubt when I was reading this that there was a very smart human writing this.

I think many reading will have the sense when diving into this book that it is beyond them. I certainly felt dumb and lost at moments during Dead Astronauts. The thing is I don't mind that feeling from time to time. I like it in short stories or novellas more because I am a plot and narrative reader/writer. It is personally challenging for me to read a novel with a vague or unformed plot. Add to it surreal characters whose reality and humanity is constantly challenged - yeah Dead Astronauts was not totally my cup of tea. The reality is I gave it three stars when it is probably a five-book. It just is not for everyone.

I recognize there are smart themes and ideas but Dead Astronauts is a weird weird book in ways I find both frustrating and exciting. There are some really excellent parts and my mind when to crazy places but I also felt I didn't need three hundred pages of it.

Dead Astronauts has Solaris feel to it, a cosmic horror feels that tests the wibbbly wobbly ness of reality. In a world after humanity has been almost lost "The Company" is trying to extend life by creating biotech lifeforms more able to survive the harsh conditions. That is where reality and what is human comes into play. The POV characters don't know what or if things are real, and Vandermeer plays with all kinds of neats tricks to test them and the reader. The characters are used in experiments and so is the readers.

Does that sound like fun? At times I loved it and felt like I was being beautifully manipulated and then at other times I was just confused. This book is not for everyone but it is really cool for such a bizarro experimental book to get a mainstream release. That is something I love Vandermeer for.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Book Review: Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds

Permafrost by Alastair Reynolds

Paperback, 175 pages

Published March 2019 by

I have to admit that I have never read Alastair Reynolds. I have had several people I trust tell me he is great, I even have a few of his books on my shelf including his Doctor Who novel. Yet somehow I just never made to the point where I cracked up one of his books. When I say he had a Tor novella (they have been releasing just fantastic novellas the last couple years) I decided it was the time.

I mean I saw the book on the new releases shelf and when I read the back I was instantly sold. "Fix the past. Save the present. Stop the future. Master of science fiction Alastair Reynolds unfolds a time-traveling climate fiction adventure in Permafrost." You would have had me at climate fiction. I mean it is a subgenre that I have published in myself and the end of the end Cli-fi is kinda my biggest nightmare.

Add time travel and now we are really talking. Taking place in a post insect future with a slowly dying human race the time travel aspect of the story has a cool Twelve Monkeys vibe. In this world time travelers are trying to go back to a time before all the insects died to hide seeds that they could protect without screwing up the timelines.

I didn't fully get the fake science of it but the time travelers would go back and in embed themselves in a host body. The project that sent them back gave the book the title Permafrost.Once the time travelers are back the various missions and timelines get crossed with an unlikely villain tries to ruin their plans.

I loved this novella, with plenty of plot twists and action. All this with a powerful climate message. Permafrost with its tight story and short page count could make a great movie. It should be a movie anyways. Does all the time science work, it seems to me that it does. I like some of the weird twists the method of time embedded thing creates. The message is strong and highlighted by how strange one of the characters finds it to watch a fly buzz around them. Is it heavy-handed? Sure but the climate crisis needs direct and brutally honest speculative takes so this future never happens.

Book Review/Podcast Now Wait for Last Year by Philip K. Dick

Now wait for Last Year By Philip K Dick

Paperback, 256 pages

Published October 2011 by Mariner Books (first published March 1966)

While I am going to save most of my hot takes for the podcast let me say this is a novel with lots of interesting and weird concepts. I think it suffers a bit from getting a final polish in the period of which PKD was separating from wife number four (?), not only does this inspire some painful misogyny in the form of shots fired at the institution of marriage. Worse is just that Phil's life was a mess at the time. I think this negatively affects this novel that does have some really cool elements.

Podcast recording soon.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Book Review: Saga, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan (Writer), Fiona Staples (Artist)

Saga, Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan (Writer), Fiona Staples (Artist)

Paperback, 176 pages

Published October 2012 by Image Comics

Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story (2013)

Harvey Awards for Best Continuing or Limited Series, Best New Series

Best Single Issue or Story (Saga #1)

Best Writer (for Brian K. Vaughan)

Best Artist (for Fiona Staples)

Best Colorist (for Fiona Staples) nominated for Best Cover Artist (for Fiona Staples) (2013)

British Fantasy Award for Best Comic/Graphic Novel (2013)

Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for Best New Series

Best Continuing Series, Best Writer (for Brian K. Vaughan) (2013)

Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Best Graphic Novels & Comics (2012)

I find it really strange that this series has been going since 2012 and I never read it. I am pretty sure I saw the cover around. Brian K Vaughn is a hit or miss writer for me, I loved Y the Last Man enough that I would have been interested if anyone told me the concept. I got interested when a film podcast I listen to mentioned that the film rights sold and they described as almost unfilmable. They seemed to think that BKV wrote Saga to be something that could only exist in the comic book medium. Is that true? Not sure about that but after reading the first book it seems very possible.

Saga is a high fantasy space opera, think of a hard R rated Star Wars. I would describe this as a fully adult Star Wars that gets a big boost from the amazing world-building in both the writing and Fiona Staples' amazing art. Much like A New Hope, we are thrown into this universe with little explanation but that is OK because the action and characters hook you right away. Eventually, you figure out that this is in our far future (I think) and humans are spread out in the galaxy, we see a few of them but our main characters are soldiers from opposite sides of a war who have just given birth to a baby Hazel.

This story is told by Hazel whose father Marko has horns and grew up a moon of their homeworld and her mother who winged and ferry looking a solider on the other side. They are badass new parents and they have to be because the Robot Kingdom and various bounty hunters are hired to kill them. Both sides are not stoked on the situation. There is not a ton to the story in this the first of nine volumes but it is a great introduction to the world and that is the job of this issue. At the core is a very relatable story of two parents trying to raise their child in an extreme situation. Beyond that surface is a super weird fantasy world that includes TV faced cyborgs, half spider lady assassins, a Rogue character with a truth detector cat and plenty of potential for space opera madness. All are things I dug.

Saga is a really cool piece of work and actually, I would love to see it as a TV series. might have to tone down the adult stuff but I don't think the story would suffer for that. He is an interesting thing. This is only the 9th book I read this year but if you look back at the books I have read this year I couldn't help compare this the uncompleted series that Malcolm Mcneil started in the 70's Tetra. Originally published in the '70s in Gallery magazine Tetra only recently re-surfaced when James Reich and Stalking Horse press brought it back from the dead.

Saga is much more developed but I did think to myself while reading SAGA if only Tetra had the time to grow. I am going to keep reading this for sure.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Book Review: The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

Hardcover, 356 pages

Published March 19th 2019 by Saga Press

Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Science Fiction (2019)

Dragon Award Nominee for Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel (2019)

Welcome to the review of my third Kameron Hurley novel. This is my favorite but the last two have convinced me that Hurley is one of the most exciting voices working in modern Science Fiction. As a well known old school reader, it is awesome to have found a bold new voice. I mean not that new my first time reading Hurley was her 2010 series kick-off God's War (Bel Dame Apocrypha, #1). I could tell it was really well written but for some reason, it felt too fantasy for me or something. I knew it was good just didn't push my books. Then a few years back Hurley released The Stars are Legion.

The Stars are Legion is an incredible epic space opera with hints of body horror set in a post-men future matriarchy. The world-building in that novel is some of the best I have read in decades of science fiction reading. The Stars are Legion is a book that you enjoy while reading but it worms around in your brain every time you think of it. It is a book impossible to shake. When I wrote my review of that book three years ago I thought Hurley would have a tough time following that up.

Well, enter the Light Brigade. I read this book for two reasons. Primary was the strength of Hurley's last book, but second, was a five-star review from Science Fiction Book Podcast's Luke Barrage who very rarely gives that high praise. I say this because I went into this book as cold as I could. I knew nothing about the plot, managed to avoid even the notion that it was military sci-fi although the title told me that. I think the best way to enter this book is without any background. So if you are like me (and many of my readers come via the Dickheads podcast) and you like mind-bendy science fiction stop now and come back and read the rest of this review.

Before I get into spoilers let say this. Military Science Fiction has a long history that Hurley tips her hat too. The ultimate classics are Starship Troopers and the Forever War which kinda serve opposite sides of the political divide. Light Brigade does pay homage to those books but importantly Hurley updates the themes with a close look at the one issue that is tops on the minds of our modern solider. PTSD and the fog of war. While Hurley doesn't address as directly as Weston Ochse has in his Grunt series and his Burning and Dead Sky books. It is no small deal that Weston the author of those books and a Vet who has spent several tours in Afghanistan has said the Light Brigade impressed him with its military sci-fi-ness. That is bigger praise than anything I have to say.

The Light Brigade has other very strong influences mostly in classics like Slaughterhouse-Five and 1984 which get subtle well-done nods through-out. It is one of the most quoted statements about war but Senator Hiram Warren Johnson was not wrong in 1918 when he said the first casualty of war is truth. At the heart of this novel is the fog of war but brought to the surface in a way that only sci-fi could. This book is military sci-fi but it also is a dystopia, Cli-Fi, a multi-verse story and involves time travel. It is a rich political tapestry woven perfectly into the world-building that never forgets to give you character and story worth following. Excellent stuff.

OK, I hope I sold you because now I am going to start talking about the story. Go read it and come back.

The Light Brigade on the surface is a story about soldiers who are trained to be transported on a beam of light. Unlike Star Trek Hurley never ignores the insanity of that concept. Our POV is a soldier named Dietz who after the death of her family in a massive attack on Sao Paulo signs up to become a citizen. Yes this sounds like Starship Troopers but under the surface, most of the humans were living in the south because the North Hemisphere had become unlivable in this future controlled by six corporations.

It was not huge bugs or monsters like aliens who attacked it was people who were human before setting up a social system on Mars colonies. The cold war with the Martians gets hot when they returned to earth finding a way to make the former Canada livable. At this point, Dietz and her team are sent by a beam of light to Mars, Canada, Africa where ever there is a front in the war. When they are transported by the light the effect sends them across space but also time. From one timeline to another. Dietz has trouble with who and when she is.

I was OK with feeling like I was a step behind the book, that was fine with me. I felt Hurley wrapped it all up. In the final pages, I realized that we were getting a very neat way to look at how war tears about the individual. At the same time, the book takes subtle knocks at how society is affected. I don't think that was the point though. One of the final twists is preserved also by the fact that the majority of readers will assume Dietz is a man. Written from a first-person POV Dietz is also never described by any gender pronouns. I think I assumed Dietz was a Woman because I had read The Stars are Legion. I admit through the first act I started to look for clues and decided it didn't matter and I liked that.

The Light Brigade is a masterpiece and should become a classic. This cements my belief that Hurley is a badass and that I will pay attention to anything and everything she does at this point. As for my a co-host of the PKD themed podcast we always make Dick-like suggestions to our listeners and yes this is one. Big time PKD vibes all over the place. So When we cover Now Wait for Last Year I will talk about this book on the show.