Lit Reviews Archive

6

Book Review: Star Wars Aftermath

Wherever a reader lands on this novel, I have to marvel at the fury it has produced. The stream of festering vitriol I’ve seen directed against Chuck Wendig is as astonishing as it is tragic. Who knew a gay character turning down a taste of the alien strange would set a corner of the internet ablaze? Oh wait, it’s the internet, never mind.

Moving swiftly on, allow me to establish a baseline for evaluating this book. Star Wars, on screen, is as good as it is bad. From my point of view, the line between good and bad in Star Wars is Lawrence Kasdan, Dave Filoni, and Matt Michnovetz. I’m the guy who thinks that Empire is better than Jedi. I’m the guy who thinks the Darkness on Umbara arc of The Clone Wars is on par with Empire. I’m the guy who thinks that Star Wars is better when it goes deeper and dirtier (phrasing), and that’s why I think Chuck Wendig wrote a hell of a novel.

Whatever you think of George Lucas, one has to accept that he writes Star Wars for children. I don’t say this to cast aspersions, so much as to point out the obvious. Consider the good people of Coruscant pulling down a statue of Papa Palpatine after the Battle of Endor. A child would be fine with this scene because good is triumphing over evil – historical allusions notwithstanding. Adults look at that scene and ask why Stormtroopers aren’t cracking some skulls. Wendig begins his novel with the Imperial police opening fire on this very crowd.

A post-Endor Imperial summit on the planet Akiva, an Outer Rim world that houses the balance of the story, provides a necessary catharsis for Star Wars fans who dare to think about the mythos in a serious way. Here we learn how Imperial power fractures absent Palpatine. Likewise, readers encounter Imperial voices far removed from the jackbooted caricatures often seen on screen. Admiral Rae Sloane (don’t call her the new Thrawn) asks her Imperial cohorts why the people of the galaxy wouldn’t be afraid of the Empire.

To quote the Admiral, “We’re the ones that built something called a Death Star.”

In between the ever-so-brief interludes to fan favourite characters, Mr. Wendig focuses on players who embody the working people on both sides of the galactic civil war. Norra Wexley is a retired Y-Wing pilot with PTSD and a messed up family life. Sinjir Velus is an ex-Imperial Loyalty Officer (e.g. commissar), who escaped from Han Solo’s strike force on Endor, only to hit the bottle on Akiva. The aforementioned Admiral Rae Sloane is an Imperial starship captain intent staving off the Empire’s collapse while also demonstrating that not all Imperials are incompetent idiots. These are the stars of the novel, and they work because they buck the Star Wars convention of playing to easy archetypes.

Meanwhile, the novel’s penchant for politics manifests in the New Republic, the Rebel Alliance’s successor state, coming to terms with itself as a once and former military junta. Even as the Republic’s strength grows, Mon Mothma argues for military disarmament. As readers watch the story unfold on Akiva, while both the New Republic and Imperial Remnant wring their hands over what to do next, they see why both the Old Republic and the Empire were/are failed states. Simply, neither could offer the Galaxy Far Away stability or peace.

The Rebel Alliance, by its very nature was a destabilizing force. The Empire was as corrupt as it was brutal. Wendig takes it upon himself to build the New Republic as something that purports to let the galaxy find some semblance of calm. He’s not doing this singularly through high-minded speeches about peace and democracy. Nor is he pandering to what we might want in terms of epic space battles where Mon Cal Cruisers give Imperial Star Destroyers epic pastings. For that would only make the Republic a new sort of empire in and of itself.

Instead, Wendig gets his hands dirty with the inevitable, ugliness of war. Child soldier brigades on Coruscunt, for example. Not bleak enough? How about refugees fleeing the anarchy of their homeworlds in the aftermath of the Alliance freeing, but not holding, an Imperial world. Mr. Wendig uses the 20th century’s hangovers of military occupation and liberation as a thematic foundation for giving Star Wars some much needed depth. Some readers might cry foul at his making the Galaxy Far Away a dirty place, but like so many who lamented the loss of Star Wars: 1313, I’m content to roll around in the mud.

So no, gentle reader, you’re not going to learn about what happened to Han and Leia after Endor. Nor will you be treated to a story of Luke rebuilding the Jedi Order. Instead, you’re going to get a story that treats Star Wars’ adult fans like reasonably intelligent people. We all know there’s more to the Galaxy Far Away than the dysfunctional and incestuous antics of the Skywalker clan, so why not explore it?

Mr. Wendig, like Kasdan and Filoni, puts the war in Star Wars. War happens on many fronts, involving many people, and the line between those people is often a messy and changing thing. Aftermath effortlessly captures this notion, injecting a decidedly thoughtful and politically aware aesthetic into Star Wars. If you expect anything less than that in reading Aftermath, then (hand wave) this isn’t the novel you are looking for. Move along.


3

Book Review: Slow Bullets

Slow Bullets is, I’m embarrassed to admit, my first exposure to Alastair Reynolds’ writing. Based on what I’ve heard of Mr. Reynolds’ works, I expected a story that would put a premium on the details of a hard science fiction environment. Instead, I was treated to a war story that is too complex for the all-encompassing label of space opera.

I suspect a reader will see my invocation of the words “war story” and “space opera” as an invitation to view Slow Bullets as military science fiction. Indeed, I thought about applying that label, myself. However, it feels like doing so runs the risk of minimizing the nuance at hand within this short book. Mr. Reynolds has written what I’m going to call a “peace story”. Though he borrows from elements of about half dozen tropes and sub-genres, their coalescence is something delightfully fresh.

Slow Bullets is told through the memoir of an ex-solider called Scur. The voice and tone are well suited to the nature of the story, inviting a measure of intimacy between narrator and reader. Scur’s narrative begins on the eve of a cease fire between an interstellar human hegemony divided against itself. The details of the war, such as why it happened, are left intentionally vague – save for the occasional nod toward a religious fuel fanning the flames of war. I suspect this is both an intentional allegory to contemporary times, and also a means of accentuating the grand pointlessness of armed struggle i.e. all fighting is arbitrary to the outsider. In the opening pages, readers witness Scur’s capture and torture before she wakes up in a cryopod aboard a prison transport.

The balance of the story brings together the narrative threads of a space ark, interstellar disaster (with just a soupcon of cosmic horror), and the survivor’s tale. The first half of the book, which concerns itself with how people of disparate ideologies forge an uneasy peace despite being centuries removed from their own time via an FTL accident, is considerably less interesting than what I see as the novel’s central question: who are we without our culture?

Mr. Reynolds uses Scur and her shipmates to explore questions of identity and shared history. In the wake of a cosmic disaster, Scur’s ship is more than a lifeboat for the survivors; it is a cultural ark for the collective knowledge of humanity. The novel posits that with a single shove from an external force, the culture and wisdom of the ages can be lost. Civilization, even among space faring peoples, is a fragile thing. Staring at the pieces of a broken world, Scur and her shipmates are forced to ask themselves if their individual identity is worth more than the identity of the species. It is hard not to look at that question and reflect upon it outside of a science fiction context.

Replace the cosmic horror with something much more pedestrian, like ocean acidification or a solar flare, and ponder how much our own national identities or religious affiliations should mean to us. How much of ourselves would we be willing to sacrifice to protect the greater whole of humanity? Would a Christian devote their life to protecting the last copy of the Quran? Would a Marxist give over part of themselves to the collected works of John Maynard Keynes? These are the sort of questions at the core of Slow Bullets. And if I have a single criticism of the novella, it’s that we only see these questions come to forefront late in the story.

This isn’t to suggest that the first half of the novel is unsatisfying. One should not jump into an existential crisis without allowing a reader time to make the allegorical connections between their world and the fictional one. At the same time, I wanted more of this crisis once it was recognized. I expect this desire for more should suffice as a ringing endorsement of Slow Bullets.

Military science fiction almost always asks its readers to examine solders giving up their lives for the greater whole. It can show the absurdity of conflict, or reinforce the notion that the cost of freedom is vigilance eternal. Mr. Reynolds uses Slow Bullets to take the traditional war story in a different direction, asking its soldiers, even in peace, to continue sacrificing their individuality for a greater whole. While it might be somewhat self-serving of an author to suggest that poetry and art is worthy of an individual sacrifice, this critic sees no reason to disagree. If the transcendent isn’t worth protecting, then what is the purpose of anything? A person would do well to keep this question in mind as they read Slow Bullets.


5

Book Review: The End of All Things

Let’s start this review with a quick story, shall we? Set the wayback machine for Sunday morning at Ad Astra in Toronto. After a weekend of drinking (because I’m at a con hanging out with other writers) pain pills (because I did something to my back before the con) and not enough sleep (see the above) I found myself on a panel with Charlotte Ashley and Derek Newman-Stille. If I recall, the topic of the panel was contemporary issues in science fiction. Being hung over, exhausted, on meds, and desperate to seem clever, I ended up bloviating pretty hard. Rookie mistake. I should have known better.

The one decent thing I remember saying was that it would be interesting to see a space opera working to deconstruct empire, rather than using it as a convenient narrative vehicle. I think John Scalzi does just that in The End of All Things.

Even if the latest volume in the Old Man’s War universe doesn’t fully dismantle the romance of the space empire in space opera, it does put empire, as a concept, under a magnifying glass. The Colonial Union shows us the cost and hubris of a hard power empire. To maintain its dominion, the CU uses its corps of super-soldiers against human colonies seeking independence. In contrast, the six-hundred alien races of the Conclave – a more pragmatic United Federation of Planets – illustrates the soft-power empire. Where once the Conclave existed as a mutual defence (against the Colonial Union) and trade organisation, its hegemonic power has given way to a modified Bush Doctrine of “get the humans before they get us”. This cold war on the verge of going hot continues the central theme that began in Mr. Scalzi’s previous novel, The Human Division: even the grandest house of cards can be undone when someone small bumps the table.

A reader might expect to find this story told from the perspective of the upper echelons of power. With only a single exception, The End of All Things leans heavily toward telling the stories of working people on behalf of their greater whole. One of the most important characters to the story is the third-string pilot on a cargo ship. A pair of lieutenants within the Colonial Defence Forces anchor half the book. Even with the fate of the galaxy is at hand, Mr. Scalzi subverts expectations that might see space Jack Ryan rubbing elbows with the space Joint Chiefs.

Perhaps this is the great strength of Mr. Scalzi’s writing. He is an expert at writing people, even when he’s working with non-human characters. The aliens of The End of All Things are not hideous and unknowable others. One particular alien takes up arms against humanity because there is widespread unemployment on his planet, and fighting means having a job. This doesn’t mean humanity is cast as the galaxy’s foremost monsters, either. If anything, humans are seen as tiresome and exhausting. To paraphrase one particular alien leader, “I’m sick of thinking about humans.” Aren’t we all, Madam Premiere?

And while we’re on the subject of being tired of humans, there’s a delicious snark running through each of the book’s narrative voices. Nowhere is this more evident than when the author pays attention to fine details that might get lumped into the category of social justice. This isn’t to suggest the novel is a manifesto. In point of fact, it is the exact opposite.

The End of All Things is effortless in the way it promotes institutional equality, tolerance, and compassion as de rigueur. I picture the Robert Heinlein fanboys reading The End of All Things and being horrified at the presence of “SJW” propaganda leaking into “their” genre. In truth, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision Mr. Scalzi intentionally biting his thumb at the kind of people who feel threatened by women written outside the confines of the male gaze or the use of alternative pronouns in reference to non-gender binary characters.

At the end of all things, Mr. Scalzi challenges his characters, and by extension his readers, to see beyond the monolithic ideas of their/our times and toward something better. I’m told there’s a certain hubris, perhaps even a privilege, in and about narratives of hope within science fiction. If this is the case, I trust the internet will deputize the appropriate taxation authorities to collect on my complete and total satisfaction with this novel. It’s one thing for a novel to impress me. It’s something else when it stirs an optimism I thought long since crushed under the weight of cynicism and a popular tendency toward darker narratives of entropy and annihilation.

If this is the end of the Old Man’s War universe, then Mr. Scalzi has given the old girl a fantastic send off. If not, he’s driven his universe toward an uncertain evolution that should make for some fantastic novels to come.


0

Book Review: Seveneves

“Choose Your Own Survival” – A Review in Stages, Depending on Your Taste for Spoilers

By Rollen Lee

When it’s a book of this size (only 861 pages) by an author who habitually puts out a new work every three years, there are many different ways to want to first encounter it, let alone to discuss and review it. To explain my choice here, a little background: I remember a professor recommending Snow Crash and The Diamond Age back in 1997, though I didn’t end up picking up either until 2003. Since Quicksilver, I’ve been picking up each of his books as they came out, and even reviewed the previous book, REAMDE (2012), for the Page of Reviews then.

So I decided that I wanted to go into this book blind, knowing nothing whatsoever of it. I didn’t look for pre-release extracts, like I did with REAMDE, and I didn’t look for reviews in advance, since I knew that I’d be buying it as soon as it came out and reading it. Not even looking at the flyleaf or the front flap of the dustjacket, I plowed into the book.

For anyone looking to read the book in a similar fashion, then by all means pick it up and read it. I recommend it highly, and put it up on par with my favourites of Stephenson’s – The Diamond Age and Anathem. If you’re considering this book in this fashion, you’re likely also an ardent reader of his books, or at least of hard SF. It is thrilling, but it’s by no means a techno-MMORPG-thriller like REAMDE. It’s a work of grand sweep and depth, but it’s not as dense with philosophy and neologisms as Anathem or with philosophy and theology and history as The Baroque Cycle. It has a diverse cast of characters, but it’s not a multi-chronological rollercoaster like Cryptonomicon. It has many strong female characters and plenty of science and robots, but it’s very different from The Diamond Age. And there are no samurai-sword-wielding hackers like in Snow Crash. (It’s also not like Zodiac or The Big U, though some of the horror and chaos of the latter comes through in this book, though not many have bothered to read his juvenalia.) It fits in with his other books well, as a sort of lost Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle novel modernized and given the Stephenson finish.

If any of that appeals, then pick it up. If you’d like more information, read on. In true Stephensonian fashion, there’s lots to consider.

AFTER HERE, THERE BE SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST HUNDRED PAGES OR SO, THOUGH NO WORSE THAN ON THE FRONT FLAP OF THE DUST JACKET

“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.”

In Seveneves, Stephenson opens with this arresting sentence. He proceeds to explore the end of the world as we know it. You can, however, feel somewhat fine because he’s given humanity about two years to prepare for it. He chooses not to dwell on the cause of the disaster – the earth’s moon is sundered into seven pieces by an unidentified Agent, as it’s termed in the novel. Assigning cosmic blame may be satisfying, but the task of survival at hand is more important than that search. This is perfectly reasonable, as, once the seven pieces soon become eight, multiple analyses by the scientific community demonstrate that the pieces will continue to collide, fragment, and steadily become more chaotic until they blanket the earth’s sky and then become a “Hard Rain” that will persist for millennia.

For about five to ten thousand years, actually. After that there’ll be some pretty Saturn-like rings, but that’s not important right now.

Some time is given over to the change of affairs on Earth as everyone has to face up to a definite end date looming: how does schooling change in such a setting? What do people do with their lives? How will governments come together or protest the situation? What becomes of euthanasia in such a setting? None of these take up substantial page real estate, but they do suggest the issues that most people on Earth would have to endure. The primary focus of the book at the outset is with the efforts of the world to prepare for a massive space mission, dubbed “The Cloud Ark,” to try and save humanity. From every country, a certain number of candidates are to be chosen for rapid training, and all efforts are to be directed towards preparing “Arklets” to share out smaller portions of humanity clustered in space.

By the way, the setting is in the near-future: some things are different or surprising, such as a meteorite attached to the end of the International Space Station as a testing site for different drone robots for mining, or the persistence of Sears and its Craftsman tools. Facebook and Skype are still part of people’s lives, but so are throwback communication forms like telegraphy and morse code for characters like Dinah MacQuarie, the geology/robotics expert assigned to the ISS, who uses them to stay in regular contact with her father at his mine site in Alaska. Television, of course, is also still an essential part of people’s lives: favourable notice is given of a Neil deGrasse Tyson-type science personality, Doctor Dubois Harris, who briefs the American President on the impending disaster and later becomes involved in the Cloud Ark, while some incidental remarks later note that the people aboard the ISS have become reality TV figures, to the disgust of some on board.

Stephenson explores many issues in the book, as he does in any of his novels. The key issue, of course, fits in with a common theme for him over the last decade – currently, humanity has not put enough attention into expanding our exploration and presence in space, with dreams focused more on software and miniaturized personal technology rather than hard sciences and engineering that can allow humanity to achieve more. The endless argument in Stephenson’s books between the perspectives of the “technocracy” and of the politicians or social critics continues here, as well, though issues like this will be taken up later in the “greater spoiler” section. Glimpses of possibilities for nuclear energy, the resources offered in near space, the future of genetic study and research, and the costs of flexible, risk-taking space exploration are all examined here, both for their positive elements and for their drawbacks. Any further exploration of themes here would start to crowd us into the realm of spoilers, though, so be warned.

The next part of this review has a spoiler from the front flap of the dust jacket – it gives away an important detail about the final third of the book, though not the resolution. (You may be able to guess the final result from reading it, though.) Trust me, if you’re happy with this level of detail in the review so far, then resolve to find the book and to either remove the dust jacket without reading it, or else put a cover over that inside flap when you sign it out from the library. (Or, I suppose, ignore the book altogether or just read the review since you don’t care anyhow.)

SIZABLE SPOILER, AND ONE I REALLY WISH I HADN’T ENCOUNTERED HALFWAY THROUGH THE BOOK

The result of these issues and devastations are explored five thousand years into the future, as humanity begins the gradual process of their return to the surface of the Earth. This portion covers the final third of the book. I foolishly looked over the dustjacket at a tense point about halfway through the book, and would have almost rather not known that. (I’ll get into that issue in the “greater spoilers” section. Trust me: that one is a much bigger spoiler than this is.)

Before going to that, though, I should summarize here: again, this is a very interesting and oddly inspiring book. As ever, it has many ideas explored well, several interesting characters to follow, and plenty of conflict to drive the action. It’s not yet fair to compare this to either Anathem or to The Diamond Age at this point since I’ve not read this one a half-dozen or more times yet, but it feels like it will end up closer to that level of achievement as I re-read it. It feels more substantial and essential than REAMDE did, although I did enjoy much of that book as well. At times, though, Seveneves may feel as though it shares the primary issue that I had with the previous book, in and that somewhat too much attention seems given over to “chase scenes” instead of ideas, though in Seveneves the chase is in the middle rather than at the end. One of the many quotes I treasure from Stephenson, after all, is from Snow Crash: “After that – after Hiro gets onto his motorcycle, and the New South Africans get into their all-terrain pickups, and The Enforcers get into their slick black Enforcer mobiles, and they all go screaming out onto the highway – after that it’s just a chase scene.” There’s times where the chase doesn’t need to be played out. Although it may feel like a tense chase sequence here, that’s primarily because of the high stakes and complicated technologies at play while other drama plays out back in the Cloud Ark. It’s not like the cross-country pursuit played out in the final hundred-plus pages of REAMDE.

The book feels like a thrilling chase, though, once all is in space and then once the final portion of the book moves to a close. Set-up and the doling out of information is always done judiciously, and though you may chomp at the bit as you will things to move along, wanting to know more, Stephenson blends character beats with the work of exposition effectively and well. Granted, there are portions where characters provide exposition in response to others’ explanations, though at this point with Stephenson and the genre of “hard” SF you should expect some degree of that as standard operating procedure. The exposition factor is just as notable in the future portion, which starts us with a character and adds on technology, setting, and connections to the past as needed, rather than as one long catalog of updates.

GREATER SPOILER WARNING SECTION – HEREIN THERE BE IDEAS, ISSUES, AND QUESTIONS WORTH MENTIONING OR EXPLORING BUT WHICH WILL GIVE AWAY PARTS OF THE BOOK AND PLOT

Are you sure you want this?

After all, the book’s still interesting and engaging enough without this up front before you read it.

Alright, it’s a free country and a free internet.

So: should we trust the democrats or the technocrats to save us?

In spite of all the good that governments do to build up the cloud in space, Julia Flaherty, the President of the United States, defies a global treaty banning government officials and leaders from going into space and avoiding death by escaping into orbit in a Boeing X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle, designed for maintenance of military satellites and other secretive missions. She arrives soon after the commander of the Cloud Ark declares that, with the Hard Rain falling on Earth, all people in orbit are no longer subject to the nationalities and laws of the destroyed surface. While people adjust to the new situation, the equivalent of martial law is declared.

Now, this issue can be explored in a few ways: yes, the commander moves quickly to establish order in the Cloud Ark, under the aegis of the laws prepared for the project. However, it can also be seen as a heavy-handed gesture rather than a measure to deal with future worst-case-scenarios. There is a definite divide between those in the centre of the ISS and those “Arkies” who live out in the Cloud Ark, who only dock with ISS for a tenth of their time while otherwise floating around in formation and waiting to be told where to go. The ex-POTUS goes out into the Arkie population, and very quickly works to galvanize a majority of them to set out for Mars instead, taking vital gear, resources, and expertise with them. It’s fair to concede that the population of the Cloud Ark think that they’re being neglected by the crew on the ISS, but at this same moment, the commander himself, Dinah MacQuarie, and two other experts are trying to bring in a comet that was steered to them on a suicide mission by a space mining entrepreneur. Rather than have the Arkies provide new organization or new ideas or negotiate for changes to the governance structure, the mutineers instead come off as petulant and impatient children by comparison. The President, typically, comes off as a manipulative, power-seeking dilettante without any skills to offer in space other than misguided and uninformed leadership. Now, many would make the same criticism of modern politicians in general, and I’m certainly not innocent of such statements. Most of the characters are shaded with enough strengths and weaknesses on both sides that it doesn’t prove to be too problematic overall, but to some degree the President is made out to be a straw-woman for this scenario. The argument, as usual, favours the technocrats, and the President comes in somewhere above G.E.B. Kivistik from Cryptonomicon and below Fraa Lodoghir from Anathem in the annals of non-STEM thinkers and leaders in Stephenson’s books.

Another issue: should we be more adventurous in space?

Under such a time crunch, it’s understandable that the careful testing, simulating, and reassessing of space missions and technologies would be compressed. Safety for astronauts and cosmonauts who are backed by many years of valuable training are not to be put into unacceptably risky situations, after all.  With such a limited time to prepare for millennia in space, many technologies are thrown up into orbit to be later brought together in a flexible and adaptive fashion. But the level of threats from space – small and large fragments from the moon, other space rocks, radiation, decaying orbits, among others – is daunting, and the deadline for all is spectacularly fatal.

A primary example is that of proposed efforts to capture asteroids or even comets for human use. The distances and forces involved are immense, and fraught with danger. The presence of an asteroid tethered to the ISS indicates that the ability is there, but its difficulties are made clear. Early in the first part of the book – the pre-”Hard Rain” portion – the space mining entrepreneur for whom Dinah works sneaks up into space in an experimental space tourism capsule, and is shortly followed by a private space vessel to allow him and a crew of five more to chase down a comet, break off a sizeable fragment, and steer it back to the cloud. The water in the comet, mixed with the heat from their nuclear reactor, provides enough propulsive force to bring it back towards the cloud less than two years later, but the accidents and failures lead to the reactor’s radiation – as well as those rays from space itself – producing enough damage to kill the entire crew before they can return.

A great many characters die because of space-related injuries and hardships in Seveneves. The first set of workers sent up by the Russians are not expected to even come aboard the ISS, but instead live in their suits and in onion-like air and plastic “lifeboat” bladders while they build up the exterior of the station. Only a few of these survive. For later members of the Cloud Ark and the crew of the ISS, many are wiped out by stray rocks, by accidents, and by cancers due to their proximity to nuclear and space radiation. The death toll for humanity in this book approaches Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy levels, though we come to know many more humans and victims than we did in Adams’ book (which was written for a very different purpose anyways).

Which leads to another issue: at what point does all society and humanity collapse?

(Incidentally, this was when I chanced a look at the dustjacket and discovered that the remaining 300 pages did offer something beyond the imminent collapse. I wasn’t exactly looking for reassurance of a happy ending – and, given the issues, I assumed that Stephenson wasn’t going to end the book on a note of hopelessness – but it still took the impact away somewhat.)

Cannibalism enters the picture in some of the Arklets. At first as the Mars mission fails due to blights and crop failures in their ships, a few self-cannibalize, arguing that their legs are relatively useless in zero-G. Later, several others are killed to become food. The gruesome advent of this moment occurs as the rebels against the President begin to strengthen themselves for the struggle to retake some of the ISS so that they can bargain from a position of strength. Most of the combat is with pipes and knives, or else with weightless grappling. The fight between the ISS population and the returning Martians ends with barely a dozen survivors from an initial orbiting population of nearly two thousand from a terrestrial population of over seven billion.  The survivors manage to take their ship (built out of the asteroid, the ISS, the Arklets that stayed, and the comet fragment) and successfully dock it in a larger chunk of space rock. Once there, the remaining population of men rapidly pass away from a range of maladies and injuries.

Safe at last, shielded from hazards, the remaining eight women have plenty of resources to support them, but any stored genetic material – other than digital records – were lost long before in an accident. One of the eight has gone through menopause, and so seven women remain to try and rebuild the human race. The technology, their geneticist is confident, will allow them to make enough changes to their eggs to allow them to produce a sufficiently diverse and robust population. A high-stakes debate ensues over the changes available and the likely benefits offered by depressive and bipolar personalities. This debate is pushed to a solution by an ultimatum, and is then capped with a curse by the surviving cannibal leader, who assumes that her descendants will be judged by what she had done in the name of survival. (I’ll come back to this in the next, most spoiler-intense, section.) This moment provides the title of the book, then, with “Seven Eves” who will become the mothers of a future humanity.

An aside before the big spoilers: What becomes of privacy in the future and in the Cloud Ark?

In the space vessels of this future, all your moments are recorded – unless you know how to counteract the surveillance. This is first hinted at with the reality show, but later it becomes a greater issue after the commander at the time of the Hard Rain promotes the assistant of the computer system guru to head up surveillance and systems rather than retain the original man, an obvious NSA-type whose allegiances the commander cannot trust.

Either due to this demotion or to allegiances, the President quickly prevails upon NSA-type to shut off surveillance in their Arklet while they plan for their Mars mission. He, in turn, had placed a bug in the command module of the ISS, and this sort of panopticon for those in charge gets a fair degree of mention. It’s never expressly brought up as a key theme in the first portion of the book, but it’s never elided, either. It’s treated as a fact of life in space, much as it is in this post-Snowden time – and as was fretted about in a different fashion in Cryptonomicon.

The surveillance records return in the latter portion of the book, as the files and pictures left in their computers, in their “Spacebook” and blog posts, and in the surveillance videos come to constitute “the Epic” which informs later generations of the formation of their future humanity. Scenes we have earlier read become cited episodes to inform everyday living later, or mines of information to be used by characters to control pivotal events later on. One can deplore the manipulation of these episodes by others, but one can also appreciate the endeavour to examine how history could be done in such a paperless milieu.

SPOILER ON SURVIVORS AT THE END OF THE FIRST TWO-THIRDS OF THE BOOK COULD BE INFERRED. ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO READ THIS IF YOU’RE GOING TO READ THE BOOK?

On reproduction, survival, and race: to what extent is it racial profiling when these are characters who have been cloned?

The front flap, again, spoils the reader to the development of “seven distinct races now three billion strong,” so if you read that, you knew this was coming. But again, this spoils you on the survivors of the Epic, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The women who survive to reproduce are generally from the global north, or acculturated to it. The balance is more skewed towards standard “white” characters, but only 4:3.

Each woman, essentially, becomes the “Eve” of the ethnicity that grows from them. Each, to some extent, bears a race of similar properties – determined engineers and operators, thoughtful scientists and organizers, tough and disciplined operatives, wise and wily figures, determined and amplified strivers, supportive and non-combative assistants, and, finally, individuals who are genetically unsettled such that they can change in response to trauma and challenges – particularly in response to the actions of the ambitious and unsettling. These properties become more important than skin tone, though some sequences at the end do rely on pigmentation to drive the action, too.

To some extent, each may well be considered to be a caricature, or even a stereotype, by some readers. Part of this issue must be considered in light of the earlier scenes and developments that were given to each of these characters, though. A couple are given a substantial amount of page-time; most of them are given much less time than these two, though consistently present throughout; and one is given very little time before the pivotal debate, though she speaks volumes in that short scene. Given what we are shown through the first two-thirds of the book, nothing which follows with their clones is too divergent from the characterizations already developed as they focus on traits necessary for survival and expansion in space, though some may be given greater portions of heroism or villainy in the descendants we encounter. In the truncated account of the history that follows from that debate, Stephenson details various stages and phases the re-populating effort follows, with some parts more inclusive, and others more focused on building up particular “racial” characteristics over time.

Some long-time readers of his works may recall the critiques that dogged earlier novels of Stephenson, whether related to depictions and discussions of race or to the primacy and privilege of male characters over female characters. Personally, although I may have seen how some could criticize such books through that lens, I never found myself losing interest in or affection for those works, seeing them instead as novels and explorations of issues rather than definitive statements on all problems. These are works of thoughtful fiction, not social tracts, after all. Making these novels into expansive templates for social order would entail a substantial amount of extra writing. Since Cryptonomicon, Stephenson’s novels have tended to reside in the neighbourhood of a thousand pages, give or take 10%, and although there are many words on the page, one doesn’t usually get the sense that he’s wasted words in his storytelling. Part of his style is a high-impact, high-use wordiness and referentiality, and although you could edit out certain asides or passages, something of the character of his phrasing would be lost in the exchange. Doing so to add in these supposedly missing statements to solve racial issues or gender representation would likely be insufficient or at odds with his usual style. To be honest, such an effort would likely lead to the application of the telling and new label of “mansplaining” to such attempts to “fix” this issue anyhow. I wonder if less literary and more “gripping yarn”-style SF is criticized for these issues as well? I suspect that there’s not the same level of expectation or attention given to them, though.

In terms of Stephenson’s intent, I believe that his level of interest and concern in people and the ideas that impact them has been steadily evolving, with focus gained without proving to be a “correction.” In terms of effect, though, Seveneves goes further in the development and presentation of these concepts. For example, in REAMDE, the strong and interesting character of Zula is somewhat too compelling for and beloved by every male character in the book, to the point where she seems close to pedestal installation at times. Here, both before and during the fight for control as the counter-mutineers return, it is noted – and made manifest as woman is tasered to keep her from returning to battle – that men are more expendable at this point, while women need to be saved so that they can restore humanity. Perhaps the argument can be made that this reduces female characters to a womb, but the stakes involved, the sacrifices made, and the dire numbers at this point in the story, the difference between Zula’s elevation and the issues in Seveneves is noteworthy.  (The situation is such that the victorious survivors don’t even eliminate some mutinous figures, as the greatest possible genetic diversity is needed at this point.) As a different example, female characters such as Nell in The Diamond Age and Eliza in The Baroque Cycle had to endure sexual degradation at various points in their novels, but such trials are absent in Seveneves. Whether the accounts of Dinah’s love life in orbit or of lesbian couples forming between different known characters count as a degradation of character or mere titillation is a question of personal taste; although the term used at times in the novel may be base Anglo-Saxon, the details of the act are generally lacking. When this is compared to the clarity of mind that the Waterhouses gain in Cryptonomicon after ejaculating – and the in-depth and hilarious detail of the senior Waterhouse conjures about the hypothetical Ejaculation Control Conspiracy which he needs make peace with if he is to advance in life – then Seveneves becomes a far more demure text.

The verdict

Even with all these issues in mind – and probably because of them – the novel is well worth your time. As a starting point for discussion of these themes and others, let alone for thoughts and questions about humanity’s destiny and place, its resiliency and its failings, or just as a gripping tale of survival and reconstruction, Seveneves is an informative and entertaining ride. I can’t wait to re-read it.


1

Comic Review: Planet Hulk

Despite being a first-order nerd, I’m neither a huge comic book reader – I read most of my comics on a tablet using Marvel Unlimited (heresy, I know) – nor am I the biggest fan of the Incredible Hulk. It’s nothing against the big guy, mind you, but the TV show and movies always made the character seem rather shallow and limited. So when I say that Greg Pak’s Plant Hulk is the sort story to make me take the Hulk seriously as a fully-fledged character, you’ll understand the sort of praise I am offering.

My introduction to Planet Hulk came from the more recent Marvel animated movie, which I reviewed here. Both the movie and the comic book work for me because they eschew the typical depiction of the Hulk i.e. the Hulk as a force of nature. One doesn’t reason with the Hulk; one points the Hulk in the direction of the thing needing smashing.

Moreover, the Hulk is often presented as the Hyde to Bruce Banner’s Dr. Jekyll. Forgive me for not falling over myself to engage with a modern retelling of a novella from the 1880s. The inherent strength of Planet Hulk is the way in which it makes Hulk his own man. He’s no longer the consequence to Bruce Banner losing his temper. Instead, Banner becomes the cowed and suppressed symbol for all the people who call the Hulk a monster.

The story of Planet Hulk begins with Reed Richards, Tony Stark, Dr. Strange, and Black Bolt taking it upon themselves to banish Hulk from Earth. The betrayal is made all the more poignant as Banner volunteered to use the Hulk to stop a sentient satellite that was threatening the Earth. The self-appointed Illuminati of Earth-616 intended to send Banner/Hulk to a peaceful planet where he would be the only higher-order life form. Mid-way through his journey, Hulk woke from cryo-sleep and knocked his starship off course, ultimately sending it through a wormhole where he crash landed on the planet Sakaar.

Sakaar, itself, bears a striking resemblance to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom.  It’s both a world both home to divergent species of life and a world the brink of extinction. What little social order exists on Sakaar is the product of a jack booted empire of red skinned humanoids who marginalize the insect-like “Natives” of Sakaar and another race of grey-skinned humanoids.

While the nasty and brutish nature of life on Sakaar is ideally suited to Hulk’s love of fighting, it also creates a place where he is more than a force for destruction. The wormhole that brought Hulk to Sakaar weakened him just enough to make him bleed when stabbed, shot, or otherwise beaten down. In the wake of his victories as a slave gladiator turned revolutionary – that’s right, the Hulk gets involved with the politics of Sakaar – his gamma irradiated blood catalyzes plant growth on the barren planet. This makes Hulk more than an object of spectacle or a symbol of resistance against the Empire. Planet Hulk allows the Hulk to exist as the living embodiment of a creation/destruction myth.

Does Hulk fit into the Sakaaran mythology as the Sakaarson, the son of Sakaar who will heal the world? Or is Hulk the World Breaker, the one who will arrive at the end times and shatter Sakaar? The answer to this question, though an integral part of the story, is not so interesting as how the question itself elevates Hulk to the level of a classically tragic figure.

Pak’s writing sidesteps the Shakespearian approach of facilitating the fall of a great man. Instead, Planet Hulk plays out the tragic hero archetype as a full cycle. Hulk literally falls from space only to rise and fall again in the course of arriving and leaving Sakaar. This style is probably nothing new for a comics as a whole, but it’s a dimension to the Hulk which was quite unexpected to this reader.

Perhaps the most telling indicator of Planet Hulk as an atypical Hulk story is the fact that it gives Hulk a name. I know what you’re thinking, Hulk has a name, it’s the Hulk, or Bruce Banner. I would submit Hulk isn’t a name so much as it is an epithet. It’s something Banner calls the gamma-irradiated part of himself. To readers, Hulk is a golem made animate and believable through the marriage of internalized hopelessness and rage made into a character. To Banner, Hulk is a burden to endure. Holku, as Hulk comes to be known by the Sakaaran most important to him within this arc, is an actual person. No longer is the Hulk a version of Bruce Banner desperately in need of a Snickers; rather, the Hulk/Holku is an actual character with a soul – at least until the Illuminati take it from him. Yeah, bad things happen. This is not a happy story.

Though Planet Hulk does a great many things, at its core it is a story about monsters and empires. Like most smart stories that explore the boundaries of the monstrous, the greater monsters are never the overt “others” on the page. In this case, the Hulk and his warbound are the most human characters in the arc; all of a reader’s empathy and compassion are visited upon this family forged in the crucible of brutality as they, despite their strength, are also the most victimized people in the story. It is the familiar and human looking citizens of Sakaar’s Red Empire who prove to be the worst monsters of all, embodying every cautionary lesson history has to teach us about the brutality of hegemony. Likewise, Reed Richards, Tony Stark, and SHIELD are part of the same criticism. For what is SHIELD if not an empire in its own right, deciding what is best for the whole at the expense of the individual – or in this case, deciding what is best for Earth at the expense of Sakaar and the Hulk.


5

Book Review: The Honor of the Queen

Military science fiction is one of my guilty pleasures. Why guilty? Principally because I know the subgenre, as a whole, is often problematic and sometimes quite lazy in the way it propagates an 18th/19th century vision of empire building into a glorious vision of the future. At its worst, military science fiction can be hegemonic, often indelicate in how it handles Others, and generally predicated on a monolithic view of the future…or as you might know it, Starship Troopers.

Which brings me to the last few Sunday afternoons I’ve spent with David Weber’s The Honor of the Queen. HotQ is the second book in David Weber’s Horatio Hornblower Honor Harringtion series. Originally published in 1993, there are moments when the novel feels like a historical artefact of pre-internet science fiction. In light of the endless technobabble of the first novel, I wasn’t expecting much from the second. Yet I found myself reasonably surprised as this 22-year-old novel proved a pleasing reprieve from everyday life.

Make no mistake, The Honor of the Queen isn’t what I would call a think piece. You won’t find me attempting to peel back its layers and expose the social commentary at its core. Frankly, there isn’t one. The Star Empire of Manticore is Space England during the glory days of the British Empire; they are the good guys. The People’s Republic of Haven is a nightmare state of “dolists” existing in an economically impossible world ripped right out of Margaret Thatcher’s nightmares; they are the bad guys.

The novel focuses on these two empires waging a quiet proxy war over the planets of Grayson and Masada. Both of these planets are filled with backwards, sexist, space Mormon, assholes. As the space assholes of Grayson are slightly less offensive than the space assholes of Masada, and a potential buffer against Haven’s expanding sphere of influence, Manticore decides to pursue a military alliance with Grayson.

Many pew-pew space laser battles follow. It’s kind of like reading a Patrick O’Brien novel without all the actual naval history, and that’s pretty fun – if a little wordy at times. All things being equal, I’d say the novel does what it does quite well, independent of its age. Even by contemporary standards, I think The Honor of the Queen is at least an above average showing. This being the case, there are still some moments when the story structure struck me as being potentially clumsy.

Weber indulges in using rape as a narrative device in The Honor of the Queen, just as he did in On Basilisk Station. About half way through the novel the space assholes from Masada capture a clutch of Manticorian crewmen and officers after a battle. Being space assholes, they proceed to rape the living daylights out of the women among the group. For the record, these actions are not depicted in the novel. Within the context of Masadans being a colony of religious, misogynistic, zealots, the violation against the Manticorians makes some internal sense – offensive and “triggering” as it may be for some readers. One should also note the captured male crewmen are beaten and tortured to death, though it is torture absent sexual degradation. One can hardly expect space Mormons to indulge in some man-on-man rape for the sake of gender equity. Or can we? I don’t know. Moving on.

On this front, I suppose I could point to Alex DeWitt and chalk this up to the book being a product of its times, but that seems like a lazy thing to do on my part. Quite honestly, part of me wants to say good on Weber for portraying Mormonism as the chauvinistic religion that it is. The fact that the events of one or two pages have left me pouring over the question of empowered women in science fiction is probably an indicator of Weber doing a decent job – by the standards of early 90s SF – in navigating these waters. It doesn’t revel in the offense; it simply presents it as a way of shading the Masadans and informing how the proxy war is now personal for Honor and her crew.

Except, this might be one of those moments where a young woman reading an Honor Harrington novel would look at these events and see rape as a consequence of women serving in the military, independent of how strong they may be as people or characters. Again, I don’t know, I’m not an expert. I’m a literary critic who enjoys some mental popcorn and is desperately trying to “check my privilege” amid a much larger discussion.

Also, it’s likely I wouldn’t be stuck in this debate if the novel didn’t regularly indulge in narration about how Honor doesn’t find herself to be pretty. Does page space really need to be devoted to other officers’ appraisal of Honor’s prettiness? I’m tempted to grab a Forester novel and how much of a big deal he makes of Hornblower’s good looks or lack thereof. Perhaps Weber is writing to the convention, thus making the novel more meta than I realize.

The Honor of the Queen pans out as a novel worthy of the lazy Sunday afternoons I devoted to reading it. The pacing is much improved from the first novel, though the technobabble and reckless abandon of the rules of relativity persist. The space battles are fun, even if the novel presumes too much on my ability to recall the functioning of impeller wedges (aka space sails) and other in-universe space gadgets. I’m reticent to let the book off the hook in terms of some of its gender issues. Then again, I could probably think of some greater contemporary offenders if I set my mind to the task. Still, the book gets more right than it gets wrong and it’s nothing if not engaging. I think it’s what people call a “fun” read. It’s not challenging, mostly inoffensive, and leaves the reader satisfied with a predictably happy ending.


0

Book Review: Westlake Soul

I know, it’s not exactly a timely review of Rio Youers’ Westlake Soul. If you want timely, you can always try Publisher’s Weekly. Wait, no, bad idea. Stay here. Read my review of a novel that hurt more than the last time I boxed. Then, and only then, are you free to go read about new books on PW.

The boxing comparison is not an idle one. Reading Mr. Youers’ book honestly evoked memories of my last sparring session. In both cases friends and colleagues told me I would be in for a world of hurt. In both cases I brushed off the warnings. Now, two words come to mind as I reflect on Westlake Soul: body blow.

Body blows make it hard to breathe. They make a person’s body desperate to breathe in as air is being forced out. Unlike in physics, the two opposing forces don’t cancel out. Instead, they leave a person off-balance, stunned, and struggling for purchase. That’s what it is like to read Westlake Soul. It’s a series of perfectly timed and precisely measured body blows. All of these strikes left this extraordinarily cynical – not to mention grouchy – critic reeling in their wake.

Packed within the novel’s relatively modest word count is a world’s worth of ideas on disabilities, metaphysics, justice, and surfing. The eponymous character, Westlake Soul, is the smartest man on the Earth, capable of reading minds (after a fashion), astral projection, and talking to dogs. The last bit might sound trivial, but there’s nothing in the world to drive home the sadness of a scene like a dog whose dialogue is reminiscent of Jeff Bridges as “The Dude” being morose about Westlake Soul’s pending doom; for the story of Westlake Soul is that of the final days of a man in a persistent vegetative state.

Unpacking everything that Rio Youers poured into this tragic figure, would likely take a few thousand words more than the average person’s attention span. Since I think I’ve driven home the book’s evocative strength, I’ll devote the balance of this review to a theme this novel explores rather brilliantly: frailty.

A thread woven through the entirety of the narrative is the notion that life is cheap, fragile, and wonderful. In the turn of a page Westlake goes from a surfing prodigy to a man incapable of consistently blinking under his own power. Where Westlake demonstrates the physical nature of frailty, his parents are a study in mental fragility.

While Westlake Soul doesn’t present itself as an overtly political novel, the questions it asks are politically charged. I dare say they’ve become even more charged since the novel’s original publication in 2012. Life and death is easy as a binary, but what happens when said definition falls on spectrum? Westlake is very much alive, even if his astral projections are nothing more than the product of his imagination. To the outside world, his life-status is a matter of debate and hand-wringing. The character is a study into what I imagine are the questions every family has to ask themselves when they are confronted with long-term care situation. Questions this writer hopes will remain firmly in the realm of fiction apropos of his life and loved ones.

Only through hubris and chance do we imagine themselves as titans. This is the idea Westlake Soul singed into my thoughts. Perhaps the lesson at hand is that Dr. Quietus, the “supervillain” Westlake Soul presents as the counterpoint to Westlake as Charles Xavier meets Stephen Hawking, a character whose name is derived from the Latin for “finishing stroke,” will come for us all.

Westlake Soul hurts like a dropkick to the stomach. However, I would gladly read it again if only to better understand myself in that moment. Much like title character, Westlake Soul is a novel that makes a person turn inward to examine themselves. It is a Voight-Kampff test: a measure of a reader’s ability to plumb the depths of their own memories and empathize with a character who is both imaginary and an avatar for every person with a life-altering disability. To call the novel powerful, is to commit a most grievous sin of understatement.


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Book Review: Nigh Book 1

Ages ago, I said something – seemingly innocuous – about how Marie Bilodeau’s writing style would lend itself to a serialized novel. Imagine my surprise when the acknowledgements of Nigh’s first volume called me out, by name, for that recommendation.

“Adam Shaftoe…This is on you!”

A portent to be sure, and while it’s not usually my role to play the Haruspex, I dare say that Nigh’s first installment bodes simultaneously fantastic and terrifying for the balance of the novel.

Even though Nigh’s inaugural entry only amounts to sixty pages (or so my Kindle tells me) it has already managed to throw this reader for a few loops. Case in point: the balance of the preamble mentions faeries. Naturally, I braced for fantasy. The novel opens, however, with an introduction to Alva Taverner, an automotive mechanic and amateur horologist. And as quickly as I settled in for day one of Shadowrun, an all-consuming mist shrouded the small town of Lindsay, Ontario, and Nigh turned my thoughts toward Stephen King.

The stopover in King’s territory, however, is a brief one. Rather than housing monsters, the mist itself is a monster. It smashes cars, manifests soul reaving avatars, and twists the terrain into a series of organic bear traps. Whatever presumptions a reader might have about Nigh being a “faerie story” of the pedestrian variety should immediately but locked in an iron box and cast into the sea. In but a turn of the page, the tedium of the small town gives way to the sort of brutality one would expect to find in the pages of an Andrezj Sapkowski Witcher novel.

Bilodeau also seems intent on keeping Nigh reasonably far removed from the usual (i.e. boring) high-fantasy tropes. Nigh’s protagonist may be of exceptional lineage, but she isn’t about to go on a Skywalker-esque journey of self-discovery. Granted there’s a mystery to unravel, but there’s no reason to believe Alva and her over-sized wrench aren’t capable of meeting the challenge before them. The absence of the heroic cycle’s prelude further suggests Nigh will more likely follow the pattern of a survival story; in this case it’s Robert Kirkman meets the Brothers Grimm.

I think it’s also fair to presume there will be a considerable environmental theme to the story. As I mentioned before, the violent nature of Nigh’s apocalypse is decidedly aimed at the edifice of human civilization. Cars are smashed under the fist of an impossibly powerful force. This same force splits and shatters roads as if they were made of cardboard. At one point, a car gets knocked off a jack, bisecting an unwary mechanic in the process. The mist rages against the humanity’s products, but people, save for the aforementioned mechanic, appear as fodder to be consumed by the mist.

Similarly, the eventual weaponization of the natural world strikes as an immediate contrast to the professional background of the central players. Consider how mechanics and watchmakers labour to maintain the artificial systems that make civilization function. In the case of watch makers, they go so far as to impose an absolute order on nature through the conscious and exacting measurement of time. I can’t imagine these pieces of character development being coincidental to the apocalypse.

While there’s much more of Nigh to come, its introduction is nothing short of fantastic. Despite Marie Bilodeau’s existing and well-deserved reputation for doing terrible things to her characters, Nigh reflects a darker turn from her previous books. Where those works were a slow burn to various horrors and cruelties, Nigh offers no such gentle warm-up. Red shirts are introduced, humanized, and then mercilessly killed in a way that would make George R. R. Martin raise a concerned eyebrow. Though thematically appropriate, here’s to hoping we don’t have to wait until spring for Nigh’s second installment.

Nigh Book 1

Author: Marie Bilodeau

Publisher: S&G Publishing


2

Book Review: Demon by Erik Williams

Tired clichés about judging books by their cover aside, Erik Williams’ Demon isn’t the sort of book that I would have normally pulled off the shelf for more than thirty seconds. While I’m not the type to judge a book by its cover art (though I will judge cover art, and in doing so point out there are no laser scoped storm troopers in this novel) I am one to put stock in how a novel sells itslef on Amazon/on the inside jacket. Here’s a sample.

“Mike Caldwell is a CIA assassin who thinks he’s finally got a real case to work on. At a remote construction site in Iraq, something deadly and dangerous has been unearthed, and Mike believes he’s dealing with a powerful pathogen that turns the infected into primal killing machines. The truth, however, is far worse.

The ancient prison of the fallen angel Semyaza has been uncovered, and for the first time in thousands of years he is free to roam the earth, possessing the bodies of the humans he hates…Now Mike is on Semyaza’s trail, hunting a demon whose mere presence turns every living thing near it into a weapon of mass destruction…”

From the description, it seems like Demon has a particular audience in mind. The kind of audience that talks about “Real America” and brackets their portraits of Jesus with those of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. The kind of audience that watches Fox News for its climate change “debates”. The kind of audience that says things like, “If I can balance my cheque book, the government should be able to balance federal spending.”

I think you see where I’m going with this. For that reason, I almost declined to review Demon on account of rule number 6, “Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike.” In truth, my decision to review the book came down to a single question: did the author write the jacket copy, or did the publisher put it together in an attempt to be salacious? After finishing Demon, and thoroughly enjoying the experience, I suspect the latter.

Much of this book surprised me. First and foremost, its setting of post-war Iraq isn’t presented as a moral playground with a protagonist acting as the archetypal, “America, Fuck Yeah” hero. It’s a place, no better and worse than any other contemporary setting for a novel – albeit one that is more complicated and plagued with narrative peril. The author’s descriptions of Basra and the surrounding hinterland, though underwritten by the neo-colonial adventure of aggressive American foreign policy, don’t carry with them any presumption of prejudice or moral righteousness. Everything about the characters and setting, including a large swath set aboard an Iraqi oil tanker, and especially the part set aboard a US naval vessel, seems come by honestly (Williams is a former naval officer) and without agenda.

Despite one assassination scene and one full-bore gun fight, which itself is smart enough to talk about blown ear drums as a result of blasting away like Rambo, Demon largely presents itself as a dialogue on personal accountability. Both the corporeal and supernatural elements of the story orbit this common point. Mike’s conflict is an internal one as he attempts to parse being a professional killer while being on the side of the angels – so to speak. In contrast, Samyaza blames everyone but himself for the actions he took during Lucifer’s rebellion against the throne of the high heavens. The narrative serves to plumb the depths of both characters until such time as they, together, are able to reconcile themselves with the world. Thus, the demon of Demon is not Samyaza, but the more intangible demon of self-doubt.

With respect to Samyaza and Uriel, a Seraphim and hand of the divine author who steers the plot where it needs to go, I couldn’t help but feel that the novel relied a little too heavily on Christian mythology (contradictions included) as written. I fully acknowledge my thoughts on that point probably have more to do with the fact that I think the best parts of the bible were written by Dante Alighieri and the various writers of the Diablo trilogy. I don’t want to open a theological can of worms, but hear me out for a moment.

God, as presented within his novel, must be a sadist. Consider the implications of a creator making angels outside of the divine image, thus absent the free will of humans, who are made in said divine image. For want of free will, the angels must come pre-programmed. Their fates should be known to an all seeing divinity. Thus, Lucifer’s rebellion and Samyaza’s millennia of solitary confinement are the result of teleological predestination. I might be willing to accept that at face value if I was a particularly faithful person; alas I am a critic. Therefore, god seems like a bit of a jerk toward a character I came to quite enjoy reading.

And before you, gentle reader, accuse me of being picky or particularly sacrilegious, consider the fact that I’m able to get stuck in the weeds of philosophy and spirituality in a novel that has a stand-in for Cobra Commander on the cover. That alone should speak volumes about Mr. Williams writing. Demon managed to subvert all of my expectations, unexpectedly drawing me via a depth in the characters and the genuine sense of place conveyed through the prose. I look forward to seeing what he does with the sequel.


1

The Life Academic and Stephen King’s The Dead Zone

I recently discovered the joy of reading while exercising. In the past, attempts to read paper books while spending hours on an elliptical glider have resulted in abject failure. Some of these failures were more embarrassing than others; the details of those incidents remain classified.

When I bought a Kindle, some years ago, I assumed that reading it while exercising would only yield more embarrassing, and now expensive, results. It turns out I was wrong. E-reading at the gym is fantastic. It gives me an extra 4-5 hours a week of reading time, which had previously been dedicated to staring into the middle distance, as I tried not to look at the clock. That said, let’s talk about The Dead Zone.

The Dead Zone is a novel I was supposed to read in the 9th grade for a book report. Ever the scholar, I made like Jeff Winger and rented the Christopher Walken movie. At the time of this post, I’m about a quarter of the way through the book – it’s 1975 and Johnny just woke up from his coma. Though I was only a few pages into the book before Mr. King’s words give me serious pause for consideration. There is one moment within the novel’s opening chapter that says something profound about who we are as readers and North Americans. My enduring sense of guilt also demands I point out this happens roughly when thirteen-year-old Adam dismissed The Dead Zone as a “stupid romance novel,” and asked his parents to drive him to Blockbuster. I can’t believe they bought my line about doing a comparison between the book and movie.

The lead-up to Johnny and Sarah’s date offers more than an introduction to these characters. With my sympathies to Mr. King’s ego, this scene demonstrates The Dead Zone’s value as a historical artefact. Johnny, in 1970, reflects on the nature of college students amid the Vietnam War. He says there have likely never been so few “grunts” in the university than at that point in American history. Sarah, speaking on behalf of the reader, asks “What’s a grunt?” Johnny answers that a grunt is a person who attends a post-secondary institution solely for the degree. They want nothing more than access to the cozy, $10,000 a year job market.

For the wonkish, $10,000 US in 1970 would be worth $61,194 in 2014 dollars.

Grunts don’t care about engagement on campus or the affairs of the world at large. Neither do grunts have a social or political conscience. Unlike Johnny, who held out some hope for graduate studies, the grunt tops out with a Bachelor’s degree. In short, they’re not at the university to think, they’re there to put in the minimum amount of work necessary to secure access to a certain socio-economic class.

This is where I draw upon my own experience working in academia when I say the exact opposite seems to be true now. My seven years as a teaching assistant afforded me first-hand experience with hundreds of undergraduate students. Perhaps one out of twenty of those students thought about their degree as something other than a ticket to getting a good job (joke’s on them for thinking that a history degree is going to make life easy after graduation). Don’t even get me started about the lack of political engagement, as measured by straw polls asking students, “Who voted?” amid provincial and federal elections. Okay, I’m straying dangerously close to “kids these days/get off my lawn” territory.

In reflecting on this stark contrast I feel like I have to own some part of the blame for perpetuating the current state of affairs. I’d often be asked, “How do I get an “A” on my paper?” My stock answer was, “follow the directions in a competent manner and you’ll get a solid “B”. To get an “A” you need to be better than competent.”

My university experience, as both student and teacher, was about following the rules, colouring in the lines, and falling into step with the program. The few revolutionary types that I knew as an undergrad collected shitty grades because they wanted to rage against the machine in their written work. Most of them ended up washing out. When confronted with the same as a TA, the renegades who thought that they could change the world by not doing the assignment as posted, I perpetuated the system and offered marginal grades. When I dared to give truly shitty papers the grades they deserved, faculty rapped my knuckles and told me to be more generous in my grading.

“Do you have to fail them, Adam? Couldn’t you give them a 55? You know that if you do give them a 30 they will be in my office complaining about how they are entitled to a passing grade.”

Knowing that my very precarious job depended in part upon the largess of the faculty, I got with the program and inflated the shitty grades.

We’re all grunts now, Mr. King. A hundred different things have turned us into grunts. One generation told another that a university degree would lead to a good job. Now we have degree holders slinging coffee for want of white collar work. PhD’s are a dime a dozen, and their fights for tenure-track positions in the face of growing sessional contracts borders on spectacle. In the forty years since Johnny Smith went to school, we’ve broken the post-secondary system, and I’ll be damned if I’ve seen any good ideas on putting it back together again.

So let’s add this vision of the university experience, even if it is an idealized one, to the growing list of reasons why people should be reading Stephen King’s back catalogue. Even if I had read The Dead Zone like I was supposed to, 20 years ago, there’s no way I would have been able to take away anything like what I’m getting now.