Saturday, April 10, 2021

Book Review: Fragments of a Revolution by Seb Doubinsky


  

Fragments of a Revolution by Seb Doubinsky

Stalking Horse press
Hardcover, May 2021
ISBN: 9781734012651

 

Sometimes when you read a new release from an author you first thought is where the hell have I been? Why have I not heard of this author before? I was even collected in an anthology of Hamsters stories to benefit Fabolous Raye alongside Doubinsky. Before starting this book I looked him up and His Babylon trilogy looks so up my alley that I kinda felt guilty. So after reading this book we are going to talk for the podcast and fix all that.

 

My interest at the onset was who published this book. Stalking Horse press is a pretty safe bet, the indie press that is the passion and brainchild of James Reich makes one-of-a-kind books. There is no clear marketing, just stuff James likes and so far, he has a high batting record of fascinating books.

 

Fragments of a Revolution is a short but thought-provoking slice of fiction composed in short but vivid vignettes of powerful prose. As narrative and structure junky most books that use this style challenge me. It is not that I don’t enjoy experimental prose, in the hands of the right author like your Kathy Ackers of the world it can be a surreal literary journey. What I liked about this tale told in fragments is that it was not surreal.

 

Doubinsky gets experimental with the format and there is plenty of empty white spaces, no chunk of the story is told over more than three pages. That said the story is vivid, powerful, and realistic. The summer of 1969 in Mexico comes to life. It is easy to forget one year after the summer of love in the states that radical activism was happening everywhere. Mexico the year before exploded with radical activism as the students protested the summer games.

 

I don’t know the history to be honest. I don’t know how much of this book is based on history or fantasy. Some of the moments of the book feel almost too ideal but I hope moments like this ring true.

 

            Are you going to execute us, senor?” The woman’s voice was strangely calm now.

           

Lorenzo exchanged a glance with Joselito, who had just walked inside the small room. “No why?  

 

The woman shrugged majestically. “People like us are always executed in revolutions.”

 

“Sorry, not this one.”

 

 

The actual radicals of the era and the place I have no idea about really. The narrative of this story is told years after the events, Lorenzo clearly didn’t succeed in his struggle and now approached by a German revolutionary he is asked to recall his story. So in a meta sense, the reader is just the wider audience for the tale. That is of course the genius of the Fragmented narrative because our narrator doesn’t remember. He is telling this tale through the haze of memories clouded by his glory days and the idealism of his radical young adulthood.

 

            “…I owe him this piece. He wants to know.”

 

            “Yes but if it brings back bad memories…”

 

            Lorenzo sighed and caressed his wife’s back. “I don’t know if they’re bad memories…I can’t remember what happened, that is the problem…I can see some faces, a few names have come back to me, but that is it…”

 

Living now in Denmark with a comfortable life Lorenzo is aware that his wife and son don’t know about his past, and he is afraid of them getting more than those fragments. The prose in this short novel is fantastic evocative enough to paint a clearer picture than the novel with 1,000 times the word count. Lorenzo’s fears are real you can’t blame this narrator for being unreliable.

 

Radical fiction requires a delicate balance, the choir loves preaching and as a member of this choir, I enjoy protest fiction. I like it subtle and soaked in allegory but it is always fun to read something clear and direct about actvism. This is not unapologetic however, one of the strengths of this book is that it is a story of revolution told by a father with years apart from the struggle.

 

A great read for fans of radical activist fiction. Pre-order this now if that is you.

 


Thursday, April 8, 2021

Book Review: Our War by Craig Dilouie

 


Our War By Craig DiLouie

Hardcover, 400 pages
Published August  2019 by Orbit



One of my favorite genres of novels is the warning novel. 1984 and Alas Babylon are taught in schools because of what they say about authoritarianism and nuclear war. Not every novel written as a dire warning is taught in schools but I personally love sci-fi that does this.  Speculative fiction as a genre has many tricks up its sleeves but the ability to look at an oncoming disaster and dramatize it is the very best reason to write it. We can debate that point, it is subjective but I think the argument is strong to almost be objective truth. Warning novels are important. So like Sinclair Lewis It Can’t Happen here felt like a well-timed warning 90 years after it was published.

With Our War, Craig DiLouie was put in an uncomfortable place as the author of a warning novel that appeared to be coming true on January 6th, 2021. When right-wing seditionists tried to start the very conflict, he warned about it. I told you so’s from an author safely north of the border don’t make for the most natural book promotion but if the target audience is me – sold. I can relate to DiLouie’s situation as I am the author of a climate change warning novel (Ring of Fire) about wildfires I have had to debate often if I should hold my tongue or look callous promoting it.

That was not the only reason why I jumped on this book as it was also set 53 miles from my hometown in Indianapolis. It is a city I have spent lots of time in so the idea of a Second American civil war novel that was about the battle of Indianapolis had me curious. I will say I had to divorce some of my knowledge of Indy while reading this book but that is not the author's fault and should not affect most readers.

Our War released in 2019, probably written directly in the middle of the Trump years is a solid warning novel. It is about a President who after he is impeached refuses to leave office. I know it sounds familiar. Many of the events mirror reality, President Marsh’s followers in the book get a little further and many blue cities in red states become battlegrounds.

 Like many great war novels, Our War follows many different POVs. The narrative is structured in a smart way to balance parallels in the storytelling. Hannah is what I would consider the most important character, she is a ten-year girl left homeless after her parents are killed and she is separated from her brother Alex. She ends joining the Free Women a group of leftist resistance fighters, and of course, Alex ends up fighting with the right-wing militia. They were too young to have ideals before the war started and Dilouie uses these characters to highlight how both sides form their ranks. It is a trope of civil war fiction the family is torn apart and facing off in the war, but in this case, it is important and done well.  

The adult characters have plenty of meaningful parallels as well. Including Abigail whose ex-husband fights for the other side. Gabrielle is a French-Canadian worker for UNICEF looking for evidence of child soldiers in Indianapolis. She befriends a local reporter a black journalist named Audrey. On the right side of the conflict, we have Mitch who believes he is on the right side of history, despite my feelings as a leftist myself I was glad he was not painted as mustache-twirling and given his logic for his actions. In many senses, he had more regrets than the liberals about who was fighting on his behalf.

In hindsight, Our War might not seem prophetic but honestly how many of us thought we would see the supporters of a sitting president under his direction storm the capital and try to stop the transfer of power. Well apparently, this Canadian Journalist turned author primarily known for writing horror novels did. He will join fellow Canadian Journalist turned author of The American War Omar El Akkad who wrote disturbing American Civil  War novels.

Two very different books, Our War goes less into the future, and Akkad was trying to reflect the madness our country caused in the middle east by reflecting it back. Our War is about the bi-partisan conflict here and now. It is easy to point the finger exactly to the roots.

“Social media had promised to bring people together but only helped polarize them along new tribes isolated in separate echo chambers.”

It can seem dehumanizing and like a video game when it is a battle of names and profile avatars but Our War seeks to explore this conflict spilling into the streets.  To take the rhetoric that nebulous when written in comments on Facebook and Twitter and put the conflict into the real world. The narrative is helped by Indianapolis losing power and being cut off from the rest of the country. Otherwise, the conflict probably would have been live-streamed and posted all over. That is one aspect DiLouie missed, the nut bags live streaming putting their feet up on the speaker’s desk and recording for the FBI their acts of sedition is so modern treason but that is the reality. I can see why Dilouie chooses not to focus on that. It wasn’t the point.

As for the role of Indianapolis.  I had to divorce my knowledge of Indiana a little bit. It is clear that Dilouie did his research…

“Indy was a blue city, in a sea of Red. At the start of the war, the militias had gained control of the countryside easy enough. They’d roll into town, find out who was in local government, make some changes. None of it was planned. It just happened, a nationwide protest that snowballed into a revolution.”


There is a difference between reading, researching, or even visiting a place and knowing it. Why is Indianapolis a blue city in a sea of red? A couple of reasons, and while there are some progressive artist types on the north that is not the main reason. A huge aspect of Indianapolis overlooked here is the large African-American population. I know from organizing a little in the city that the community is somewhat dubious of young white progressives.  That should not bother readers, not from Indiana. That said the black community being underrepresented in the story is the one and only real knock against this novel for me.

I think this novel should be read because it is warning about violent partisanship. That message is more important than the details of the story.  

The Brother and Sister's storyline is at the heart of this novel. It is the emotional core as much as it drives a huge chunk of the story. Hannah and Alex were relatable characters who represent a very important class of Americans. Not everyone feels perfectly represented by Democrats and Republicans, but our stupid system only lets citizens choose between Coke and Pepsi. You can’t escape it.

That seems to be the warning of Our War. It is where all the hatred and partisanship go if left to fester.  The woman shot storming the capital was Q conspiracy nutbag but she was from our neighborhood in San Diego. The local news interviewed her mourning family. Her grandfather who didn’t share her views lost a loved one to the crazy partisanship as much as the bullet that tore through her.

This is where the novel addresses that issue, I think is not getting enough attention right now. Can we forgive the president and party who caused this because Trump and Ted Cruz were not shy about stoking these flames? Hannah a ten-year-old in the book brings it up. “Sabrina said they should be punished. She said there’s no going back after this, no living with them again. Not after what they have done.”

“I can see her point they declared war on reality and elected a maniac who almost broke the country. When he failed, they rose up and broke it themselves. You can’t reason with them, and they hate our guts.”  


They declared war on reality. Can anyone really argue this didn’t actually happen?  In the case of Our War the ultimate result is open warfare, and don’t assume because Trump lost this time that this novel won't be relevant again someday. This is a great warning novel, worthy of your eyeballs and attention.
 


Spoilers…

I did want to comment on something that I consider spoilers.

“This is no place for a child.”
“I’m not forcing her to do anything,” The woman said “I don’t like it either. But after what she has suffered, she can make her own choices.”

“You see a child,”Rafael said. In some ways, she is as old as you.”


And later this results in the most powerful moment of the book.

Hannah Miller knelt on the debris-strewn floor amid shredded bodies, staring into space and hugging her brother’s body.
Something inside Mitch broke.


Mitch has a chance at this point to kill Hannah. She blew up a squad of his men and with it her brother. Mitch points his rifle and can’t do it. She is just a child who is already suffering because she killed her brother. This is the moment of ultimate partisanship taken to its most awful extremes.  I enjoyed the fact that while DiLouie appears sympathetic to the left throughout the book at this moment he gives logic and strength of character to Mitch. Alex has a chance to kill his sister and can’t. Hannah is the one who ends up killing her brother and is wracked with guilt. Mitch sees the horror of all this at that moment. Powerful stuff. Excited to talk to Craig about these scenes when I interview him for my podcast so stay tuned for that…


Friday, March 26, 2021

Book Review: Lola on Fire by Rio Youers

 


 Lola On Fire by Rio Youers
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published February 16th 2021 by William Morrow

This is my fourth Rio Youers novel, and he has now achieved with me a very important status. As an author, he has become his own genre and one I am willing to follow anywhere. My first experience was his beautifully weird debut novel Westlake Soul. That novel is about a champion surfer who transcends his body after an accident. It is a sorta modern sarcastic Johnny Got His Gun. It is a slow burn but a perfect showcase of his talent and I was sold.

Youers took a few years to work his way into the mainstream and his first novel with a major publishing house was one of my top read of 2017. The Forgotten Girl is a weird crime thriller that pleasantly paid stylish homage to psi-thrillers like John Farris’ The Fury or King’s Firestarter. That is just the plot, but it is the characters and the easy flow of the pages that made this weird crime thriller a must-read.

Youers third novel Halcyon didn’t work quite as well for me but it cemented for me what we are getting are novels like great popcorn flicks by an arthouse director.  That third novel seemed like a thriller about a cult on the surface but it was a pretty neat exploration of trauma.  Don’t get me wrong I liked this novel but compared to the strength of The Forgotten Girl and now Lola on Fire it just didn’t floor me.

OK, enough history lesson we are here to talk about Lola on Fire. The blurb on the front cover invoked John Wick a movie I loved, but besides that, the title and the strength of the author I went into this reading experience knowing nothing. I avoided reading blurbs, dustjacket anything, and opened this book knowing as little as I could.

So if you trust me enough let me just say this thriller is worth a read by any measure. I read this 400 pages in three days, while still managing to get stuff done in my life. The characters are so rich that you will be sucked in and you will find pages flying past. The action is great, the story engrossing and it is one that on paper doesn’t sound that appealing to me but that didn’t matter.

By that I mean, I read science fiction and horror because I like mind-expanding concepts and ideas. I like with authors can write real and extraordinary characters in weird settings. There is absolutely nothing special about the plot of this book. Normally I would think it was a great idea for a movie probably starring Charlize Theron who seems to do the insane action movies well. That may sound like an insult but Youers proves here that does matter if you focus on the right things.

A story doesn’t have to have something you never have seen before if it is well told. That is 500 words before I get into the nuts and bolts of this novel. This is a revenge story, and it would be fair to say it is a gender-flipped John Wick. Comparisons to Kill Bill and Killing Eve seem less fair to me but you will see them.  Lola Bear is a character who through a set of circumstances, namely her war hero grandpa and the gangster who recruited her at a young age has become a legendary killer.  The story opens in 1993 when Lola burns down that gangster’s empire.  This prologue is great and feels part Elmore Leonard / Part Kill Bill.

“I mean I’m Jimmy Fucking Latzo. I don’t lose. You fucking know that. And geuss what, baby doll…you tried to bring me down-fucking end me- I brought you down. The unstoppable Lola Bear. I’m going to go from legendary to godlike.”

And if he killed her, he probably would. It didn’t matter that his army was torn apart and his house in ashes; killing Lola Bear would add considerably to his resume.”

For this reader who didn’t know the plot came 100 pages of reading with new characters and I was not sure how they connected. The style of the prologue doesn't push through with the change in characters, and story wise that made sense. That said the opening is probably the most fun part of the book. Because I didn't read about the plot I was wondering how these characters connected but I trusted Youers and I am glad I did. Eventually, it is clear these new characters Brody and Molly are Lola’s children. After their father’s murder, and their mother leaving them they are struggling to survive. Brody is coming to the conclusion that crime might be the only way out.

Holding up a liquor store was his first step into crime and it backfires. The next steps in the plot are a bit of a stretch until you figure who is pulling the strings.  Brody and Molly are forced to run and the only person who can save them their mom. If only they can find her and deal with the War that would bring.

Minor spoilers from here on…

One crazy thing is my hometown of Bloomington Indiana is one of the locations the characters travel to and one of the most important scenes of the book takes place in the park where I played basketball growing up. It is a scene when Renee a family member Brody and Molly tracked down tells them the truth and finally convinces them of the depth of the trouble they are in, and the level of killer their mother was.

“It was a set-up, Brody. Jimmy is using you to find Mom.”

While everything in this scene is elaborate it is unrolled in a way that works. This is a hard narrative trick not every scene of exposition can be smooth. Brody could come off in this scene like a moron, but instead, Youers did a wonderful job of making me feel sorry for Brody and Molly.

I want to give a compliment to this novel that may sound like an insult. Lola on Fire is an action movie more than it is a novel. Rio plays power cords like any good writer but the notes he effectively hits are the stuff of movies more than novels.  In this case that is perfect because the bottom line is always, always the story.

Blair who sets up Brody is the new Lola, in her job and training. She is the hot young replacement with that one thing that makes her more dangerous. Her ability to plan and stay one step ahead. She and Lola are like two cars driving full speed toward each other in the same lane. We know they will collide and in the end, the only advantage Lola has is what she became free of Jimmy.

She is a mother.

This leads to my favorite part of the whole book when Brody gets Molly to safety and tells her he has to go back. On page 339 of this narrative, I was conflicted reading. Wanting to yell at the book, get out of their Brody, but knowing he had to go. Why? Because Jimmy Latzo is a perfect action movie bad guy. Ruthless beyond reason who wanted to hurt their mother more than he wanted all the money and power in the world.

“His eye drifted back to the drop of blood on the hood. It had lost its shape, but not its color – its redness. And it was no longer just his mom’s blood. It was his dad’s, Renee’s, and Karl Janko’s. It was every drop of blood that Jimmy had ever spilled. It was every vile he’d done.”

He could return to the farm with Molly, leave his mother to die in pain, but he would spend his life consumed by the same hated. The action films are built on the same foundation that every great story is. Anyone can stage a car chase or have Chow Yun-Fat run around with two guns killing a million people. The best action stories are built on parallels and reversals. Character arcs are even more important in stories that appear action-driven.

I suspect Rio Youers wanted this to be the action movie that played in his head. He is a novelist so that is how he told the story. All the reviews and blurbs will tell you about the action and thrills but I am happy to recommend this character-driven coming of age that has lots of bullet casings.
 

Monday, March 22, 2021

Graphic Novel Review: Gideon Falls, Vol. 1: The Black Barn by Jeff Lemire (Writer), Andrea Sorrentino (Artist)


 

Gideon Falls, Vol. 1: The Black Barn
(Gideon Falls #1)
by Jeff Lemire (Writer), Andrea Sorrentino (Artist),
Dave Stewart (Colorist)
Paperback, 160 pages
Published October 2018 by Image Comics
 

I don’t know what I am doing reviewing comics so I will keep this a little short but I wanted to acknowledge that I read this and enjoyed it. In this last year I tried to read a few comic series. I started and enjoyed East of West and Saga because in part they felt like they would be impossible to exist in any other form. No way a Saga TV show or movie would make sense. That is the thing that attracted me to those series more than anything. I did enjoy the stories and the art was fine, but it was a different feeling.

That is not the case with Gideon Falls, which feels like a lost TV series. I see how it would be filmed, I am hearing a score in my head. That is a totally different trick but one writer Jeff Lemire and artist Andrea Sorrentino can feel good about it. I have no idea where the mystery of the murders and truth behind the black barn is going but I am here for it.

The art is amazing, and the way the panels are organized is great, don’t try reading it in low light as I did the first evening I was reading this book. The story and the setting is creepy with a big fat capital C. When our point of view character a washed-up Catholic priest asks what happened to the man he is replacing the fear to answer is really earned.

Norton the paranoid character trying to solve the mystery is two years ahead of the curve wearing a mask. His murder wall is one you really spend some time with while reading the book.

Atmosphere, mood, tone, and vibe. That is what this book is about. Really interested in where it is going.

Book Review: The Dark Veil (Star Trek: Picard #2) by James Swallow

 



The Dark Veil (Star Trek: Picard #2)
by James Swallow
Paperback, 335 pages
Gallery books Jan 2021 hardcover
Expected paperback publication: September 2021 by Pocket Books/Star Trek

There are a couple of issues I have to address first. I am one of the Star Trek fans who really like Picard and Sir Patrick’s return to the franchise. It should be noted that TNG is not my favorite of the Berman era so it was not a given. When I review franchise tie-ins I don’t expect high art although I know the authors are giving it all and they are often written by very talented who are being underrated.

One of the best moments of Star Trek Picard had little to do space battles or Romulan conspiracies but it was the touching reunion of Picard with the Riker-Troi clan. There was a real satisfaction seeing these old friends hug and break bread. I thought a lot about it and having a reunion like that not only felt like one for us but it added weight to the universe. Not only the reunion but the idea that Riker and Troi had a family in our absence.

Fans of the Trek novels have been treated to several novels set on Riker’s new command the U.S.S. Titan. It is a cool ship that officially became canon when it showed up on Lower Decks for a brief scene. That being said the novels were cool because the ship was designed to have non-humanoid crew and was an interesting little corner of the Trek universe. The job the author James Swallow was given was basically to tell the back story of the Riker-Troi events that fed Picard while tying them as best he could to tell a story the readers of the novels would recognize.

While it has been a while since I read a Titan novel but several of the characters appeared in the novels which is not a surprise as Swallow has written Titan before. All the Trek moments and feels are there, but I suspect Swallow could do that in his sleep.

The novel itself is a fun Star Trek yarn that is pretty solid science fiction that includes a generation starship, a rescue mission that requires Romulan help, and some Tal Shiar conspiracy. The narrative switches perfectly between various locations and points of view. There are several chapters from the Romulan perspective that really help to give the story a bit more suspense.

This is a fine science fiction tale and maybe I was spoiled by McCormack’s Last Best Hope which I added mountains of depth to Picard as a series, and as a character. That book had a certain depth to it, with so much depth given to the inner-workings of the crisis. There was an element that Last Best Hope took on extra meaning as the most powerful governments in the world were fumbling the handling of the Coronavirus.  

 I think in this case Swallow’s most important mission was more focused but not exactly easy to fix narratively. He had to deepen one-story element that seemed contrived in the series. Why was Thad’s disease so specialized that the positronic ban would doom him to death in the late 24th century? Why had the Riker-Troi falling given up Starfleet for living in the Hobbiton Pizza kitchen?

Swallow did some smart things in the concept phase for tying the Titan’s mission to the TV show’s android hating Romulans and he gave the generation ship species Jazari a cool secret. This story involved a prime direction debate, a hopeless rescue mission, and lots of examples of Riker showing Starfleet ideals. My favorite aspect is Swallow didn’t forget to put Titan in space and give them the kinda engineering problems really space involves. I worry that sometimes Star Trek writers forget that they are starship in space.

The novel is filled to the brim with fun Star Trek moments, I like seeing Riker trick the Tal Shiar commander in a very Kirk-style move. More than anything the novel sets up one of the best most emotional scenes between Troi and Picard in the series. That is the best thing a prequel can do right?  Add depth to the existing show.  If you are not a fan of the show but like the characters, this builds some of those mental bridges. If you are a fan the depth will help and the cool adventure will be worth your time.
 


Friday, March 19, 2021

Book Review: Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.

 


Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
by James Tiptree Jr.
Paperback, 508 pages
Published November  2004 by Tachyon Publications (first published  1990)
Locus Award Nominee for Best Collection (1991)

For any other author, this life story would be the case of truth being stronger than fiction, but in the case of Uncle Tip, AKA James Tiptree Jr., AKA Alice Sheldon the fiction is really fucking strange. The truth about this writing life is strange for sure. She led an interesting life that is often misunderstood. Let’s get one thing clear, Alice Sheldon didn’t choose a man’s name to get published in the 60s and 70s science fiction community.

While there is evidence of DC AKA Dorothy Fontana had done this to sell western scripts in TV at the time, the science fiction community had several active female voices at the time. Judith Merrill, Joanna Russ, and Ursala K Leguin were just some of the giants in the field at the time. When Lisa Yasek collected stories for the Library of America’s The Future is Female there was no shortage of stories and authors to choose from. Sure Judith Merrill may have needed to make party part bets to break John W. Campbell’s personal glass ceiling, but since we have agreed to his need to retroactively fuck off let's remember women were publishing in Sci-fi, and Tiptree was a pen name for other reasons.

No, Alice Sheldon was an intelligence officer for the Air Force and later with the CIA and that is the reason she created a  pen name, and the idea of making a man’s personality that could trade letters just seemed away to hide her identity even better. "A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I've had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation."

She grew up in Chicago and first read Weird Tales in 1924, her parents were University of Chicago academics who brought her traveling around the world. The ingredients that make her special as a writer are all there. The fierce intelligence, the mind opened to other cultures, and young readership of the fantastic. The final piece was her time as a spy, in the Air Force and eventually the CIA. It appears she analyzed photos and did not overthrow countries. None the less it gave the stories another edge of knowledge and experience as well.

Tiptree stories started appearing in the late 60s and while the author was not active in the scene beyond letters the stories were popular and the work celebrated. For good reason, a Tiptree story is one of powerful ideas and artfully composed prose. To me, the greatest strength found across the board depth of these stories is the power of the concepts and themes. Some genre writers who come up with powerful themes fail to overlook the human element. Not Alice Sheldon.

The characters are so rich that forty years later people are still laughing at Robert Silverberg for insisting that these stories had to be written by a man. Once the truth was revealed Ursula Leguin had it correct when she said "[Tiptree's work is] proof of what she said, that men and women can and do speak both to and for one another if they have bothered to learn how."

This collection is serious business, and if there is an actual canon of 20th century speculative or weird fiction this volume should be in it. Beyond it having absolute classics of the genre like The Nebula award-winning “Screwfly Solution” and Hugo winning stories like the robot tale “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” it is a high watermark of quality.

These eighteen stories balance Sheldon’s skill for the high concept with her very unflinching eye for the brutally cold universe. The best moments of Sheldon’s stories have a cosmic horror level of species self-reflection and intellectual misanthropy from a woman who was not fucking around. She was willing in more than one fictional journey to put this whole species on trial including this book’s opening shot. "The Last Flight of Doctor Ain" is a short and bitter-sweet fictional trial for humanity’s mistreatment of the one and only planet we depend on. The ending is harsh but earned.

“Screwfly Solution” is the best story in the collection and probably her ultimate classic. To me this is a top ten horror fiction story of all time, it one I realized I had read before collected elsewhere. This is one of two stories in this collection that explores the loss of one of our two genders. In this case, men are compelled to murder in what becomes global femicide. Although the ending twist is hidden in plain sight, a title that goes over the head of most readers. This story hits lots of end of the world tropes but all very well done. There are some very creepy moments with the young girl trying to pass as a boy. This story is an absolute masterpiece.

While that story is easily the best, my favorite is “Houston, Houston Do You Read?” Which is a great flip of that story with post-men earth. It is done in a space-based story, that has some interesting if not slightly out-of-date space science. Time warps, planetary motion, and astronauts doing fuel calculation were all fun stuff before we get to the gender issues. I loved it.

Sheldon always tackled deeper themes. Also, sexuality beyond gender, what drives our species. Tiptree stories were intelligent and written to make you think.

When I say she was not fucking around. All these harsh and brutal judgments in her stories ended when the author of this book killed herself and her husband in a suicide pact. I think that has important meaning to how you can and should read these stories. Alice Sheldon judged this species, and she was not above that judgment. She wasn’t some softie whose motivation was impressing the cool kids at Worldcon.

“It’s an overreaction, my dear. History goes by swings. People overreact and pass harsh unrealistic laws which attempt to stamp out an essential social process. When this happens, the people who understand have to carry on as best they can until the pendulum swings back.”

I don’t want to sound like Tiptree was writing nothing but dour sad stories. This is not poetry written by some goth edge lord. These are serious pieces of work by a serious thinker. James Tiptree AKA Alice Sheldon is one of the best this genre produced. Essential reading period.

“Hope is a terrible thing, it brings fear that the hope won’t be realized. Suppress the fear and it surfaces as symbol.”



Saturday, March 13, 2021

Book Review: The End Of October by Lawrence Wright

 


The End of October By Lawrence Wright
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published April 2020 by Knopf Publishing Group

“At best, Henry had only slowed an inevitable, history-shaping pandemic. Governments would fall. Economies would collapse. Wars would arise. Why did we think that our own modern era was immune to the assault of humanity’s most cunning and relentless enemy, the microbe?”

This novel is a really singular kind of experience, and one that I am surprised is not getting more traction not only in the science fiction community but in mainstream society. Science Fiction’s track record of prediction is hit or miss. For every time a John Brunner novel like Shockwave Rider that predicts the internet there is as many 2001 Pan Am flight to the moon base predictions that seem silly now. 2020 as a year will go down in history as a shit show for lockdowns, race riots, and dysfunctional man-child presidents but the year was great for Science Fiction and Horror novels at the very least.

Within that amazing output, there were a variety of novels released during this year that left the author having to explain that they couldn’t have known what was coming. Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for New Day pre-dated the pandemic by a year but its heartbreak at the loss of live music dripped off the pages. Josh Malerman’s sequel to the sensation of Bird Box was a horror novel that seemed like a purposeful analogy for the mask debate. Paul Tremblay released his pandemic novel Survivor Song and had to explain over and over that the book was researched and written when he could not possibly have known.

In a similar vein, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist turned Playwright, screenwriter and novelist Lawrence Wright has been thinking, researching, and planning this pandemic novel for a decade before it was released. I am sure he knew it would come someday but who could have guessed that the real thing would beat the book by a month.

Lawrence Wright went from an author unleashing a novel meant to be a Silent Spring style warning to watching it come to life on cable news. I can see why many already tired of Pandemic living might not want to read a book that is about a deadly-er virus one that started for Wright as a writing prompt from director Ridley Scott. Something like “Hey Lawrence you know that super bleak novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy? I was wondering how did they end up there?”

This novel went from warning to a game where the reader is seeing what Wright got right or wrong. In fairness to any author speculating about the future, it is a hard game. There is a lot of stuff that you will be shaking your head at how close the novel is to reality, some things where I thought Wright was being optimistic. Honestly, this is an unintended entertaining aspect of this novel. As much as that might annoy Wright.  

“If you paid any attention to the role of disease in human affairs, you’d know the danger we’re in. We got smug after all of the victories over infection in the twentieth century, but nature is not a stable force. It evolves, it changes, and it never becomes complacent. We don’t have the time or resources now to do anything other than fight this disease. Every nation on earth has to be involved whether you think of them as friends or enemies. If we’re going to save civilization, we have to fight together and not against each other.”

Wright is a unique person to write this novel, his training as a journalist led him to write the book the Looming Tower. This was an exhaustive history of the root causes of the 9/11 attacks. This gave Wright the experience and contacts in government to spend years researching a pandemic. I know I have said lots and lots of words before actually diving into this novel properly.

As a novel and a story leaving aside for a moment the reality, we lived through in the last year the End of October IS a good novel. The story follows a few characters invented but also has real-life figures like a science fiction fan Richard Clarke (former War on Terror chief for GW Bush and Obama) who I assume Wright knows and approved of being used. Without saying their names, a familiar Vice President heads up a Corona Virus task force. Probably the most unbelievable thing was the President being portrayed as even slightly thinking about the situation but whatever.

“What leadership? Tildy thought. The president had been almost entirely absent in the debate about how to deal with the contagion, except to blame the opposing party for ignoring public health needs before he took office.”

So yes Wright saw how callous and selfish Trump would be in reality but he certainly didn’t have him suggesting people drink bleach or have Hermain Cain dying because he went to his rally. So I still think the novel is to positive on the presidential front.

Our main point of view is CDC expert Henry Parsons, who leaves home in Atlanta for a short overseas trip with his car in short-term parking. He tracks the start of this disease from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia. I found Henry’s Journey to be epic and heartbreaking. His struggle to get home and be useful as society falls apart drove this novel forward. The disease in this book is a deadly influenza and followed the exact surge timing we saw in historical 1918 and 2020. The death toll was higher, but this novel also plays with the international conflicts with Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as nasty actions taken by Putin that make matters far worse.  

If there is a problem that most readers will have is that Wright digresses from the story often to work through and explain the working of the disease, the geopolitical situations. Some of this probably seemed more important a few years back when the history of 1918 was not being used as historical background on the news every night.  It was fine with me and a smart reader can skim those moments and get to the character stuff. That is if you feel you have gotten too much pandemic info in real life.

“Those laboratory animals have done us no harm. They are tortured and murdered in the name of science. I know, I used to do it myself to my great shame. Is the benefit to humanity worth the sacrifice of so many animals lives? I say, No.”

The vegan animal liberationist in me raised an eyebrow at this. Henry was an interesting character, a vegetarian ex-vivisector who struggles through most of the novel just to survive. At times we know more about the fate of Henry’s family than he does and that also makes the journey a painful march at times, but of course, the storyteller in me enjoyed every page of this stuff.

It is hard for me to talk about the character’s journey which ended up being my favorite aspect without giving away the final act. Also, towards the end, the origins of the disease take on a plausible climate change connection that is something I briefly explored in my climate horror novel Ring of Fire. So, a tip of the hat to Lawrence Wright on that.

“Both sides had entered the war already weakened by the disease, and just as in 1918, armies propagated the contagion. Hospitals, already overfilled by flu victims, we're unable to treat more than a fraction of the wounded. And yet the war raged on, pulling both countries and their neighbors back into the pre-industrial world. Little was left of modernity except for weapons.”

Once the world as we know it ends the reality behind this fictional pandemic unfolds in an interesting answer to the mysteries. Henry’s journey to get home is one I can’t spoil but there were moments of anguish, heartbreak, and range of feels. I felt all of them as the book closed and that is probably the best thing I can say for this novel.

There are many reasons to read this book. The fun game of seeing what Lawrence got correct is a good reason. A better reason is to lose yourself in a novel that can remind you how much worse it could be. The best reason is it is an effectively told story even if the warning came a little late.