Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Book Review: The Listener by Robert R. McCammon

The Listener by Robert R. McCammon

Hardcover, 332 pages

Published February 2018 by Cemetery Dance Publications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Book Review: The Unnoticeables by Robert Brockway

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 13, 2018

Book Review: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Leguin

The Dispossessed by Ursla K. Leguin

Paperback, 387 pages

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

Hugo Award for Best Novel (1975)

Nebula Award for Best Novel (1974)

Prometheus Hall of Fame Award (1993)

Locus Award for Best Novel (1975)

Jupiter Award for Best Novel (1975)

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

Ditmar Award Nominee for Best International Long Fiction (1975)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speech by Leguin from 1975:

Radio Drama based on the book:

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Book Review UBO by Steve Rasnic Tem

UBO by Steve Rasnic Tem

Paperback, 320 pages

Published February 2017 by Solaris

Literary Awards:

Bram Stoker Award Nominee for Best Novel (2017)

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

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

OK minor spoiler warning...

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Star Wars: Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein

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

by Elizabeth Wein ), Phil Noto (Illustrator)

Hardcover, 251 pages

Published December 15th 2017 by Disney Lucasfilm Press

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Solar Lottery by Philip K. Dick

Solar Lottery by Philip K. Dick

paperback, 200 pages

Published June 10th 2003 by Vintage

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

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

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

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Book Review: The God Problem by Howard Bloom

The God Problem by Howard Bloom

Hardcover, 708 pages

Published 2012 by Prometheus Books

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

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

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

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

My favorite quote from the book expresses this point:

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

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

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