Fiction Friday Archive

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Book Review: Vaporware

Based on the cover art alone, I expected Vaporware to be a twenty-first century adaptation of Weird Science. Instead, I met Ryan Colter, a video game designer with an absolutely terrible work/life balance. As it turns out, my timing in starting this novel could not have been more serendipitous; as Vaporware was a reward for finishing a massive project at my day job. Therein, my boss once joked that I had been sleeping with the project as if it were a mistress. Though the overlap between Dansky’s character and my own life was minor, at best, it was sufficiently measurable as to immediately make me take my partner out for dinner.

In terms of classification, Vaporware falls somewhere between urban fantasy and science fiction, yet the genre elements within the novel are slight. The book largely functions as both a window into the not-so-glamorous world of video game design and as a scathing criticism of the same. When an indifferent publisher cancels Ryan Colter’s dream project, code named Blue Lightening, I was reminded of what a friend told me when he was working for Dice about seven years ago: “Game design is terrible, I’m applying for a job in business applications. Nobody should have to work like this.”

When we then consider Mr. Dansky’s impressive track record as a game developer and game writer, it is tempting to approach Vaporware as something of semi-autobiographical parable. Naturally, any attempt to discern fact from fiction would be idle speculation. Of course the question of whether or not Ryan Coulter is an avatar for Richard Dansky is far less important than the obvious strength of the novel’s narrative voice. Much like reading James Clavell’s Shogun makes a person feel like an expert on feudal Japan, so too does Richard Dansky offer a decisive, and almost voyeuristic, window into a sub-culture all its own.

As a narrator, Ryan Colter is something of an interesting figure. Despite being likable and well intentioned, Colter is self-involved, self-sabotaging, narcissistic. His story arc is a downward spiral of broken relationships, both professional and personal. Colter says, “I can change” with the pathetic delusion of a drug addict in denial. At the same time, his shortcomings all stem from a genuine passion for his work. The character is such an auteur in his own right that I expect he would resonate with any reader who  engages in any manner of creative work. Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine how, if a few variables were changed, one of my friends (or even yours truly) could become Ryan Colter, ever beset by the best of intentions but ultimately unable to leave the project alone.

Mr. Danksy is also clever enough to deny readers an explanation for Vaporware’s central mystery: how has Blue Lightening transformed from computer code to physical being? Arguably, providing an answer beyond the book’s metaphysical clues would  necessitate a stockpile of weapons-grade handwavium. I have no doubt such an act would alter the book’s narrative trajectory far from a parable on work and into the domain of terrible Star Trek and Doctor Who plots. As it stands, Blue Lightening is a personification of every project that demanded more of those who worked on it. She is the siren song of work-guilt (a thing I first felt in grad school when spending time on anything other than research and writing felt like time poorly invested) and the “just one more turn” phenomenon that the likes of Sid Meier and Julian Gollup used to rob gamers of sleep and productivity.

Blue Lightening also works as an observation on the female form within gaming. When Ryan conceives of Blue Lightening as a character, he does so intending for her to be cool with a hint of sadism, as to appeal to the multiplayer gaming crowd. When she emerges into the real world, it is as a manic sex kitten version of Halo’s Cortana. And just like Cortana, who within the Halo universe began as the Master Chief’s partner, Blue Lightening devolves into a character whose agency is subject to a male figure. This in of itself may not be a scathing condemnation of how women are often depicted in games – overly sexualized, somewhat vapid, male power fantasies – but it is an accurate representation of the contemporary zeitgeist.

A reader has to make the conscious act of reconciling Blue Lightening with the novel’s flesh and blood characters to truly see the criticism on how gaming, and maybe even the media at large, treat female characters. Blue Lightening is quite intentionally a shallow character compared to the two real women in Ryan’s life. The latter exist as fully formed individuals, in stark contrast to the one-dimensional caricature that is Ryan’s passion project. The message is, perhaps, a little oblique, but it’s none the less there for any reader at all familiar with the ongoing dialogues on women in gaming: even with the best of intentions, women in video games rarely compare to their real-world counterparts.

Ultimately, Vaporware, is a cautionary tale against letting a passion for work become a sole focus of a person’s life. The narrative voice is so effectively compelling as to make a reader feel privy to the daily comings and goings of video game development. Despite being set in and about a game studio, Vaporware offers broad appeal to all creative individuals, not simply those who are heavily invested in gaming as either a producer or consumer. In short, if you’ve ever neglected friends, family, or relationships for work, you would do well to read this book.

Vaporware

Written by: Richard Danksy

Published by: JournalStone


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Book Review: iD – The Second Machine Dynasty

It may be out of place for me to include rough notes in a finished review. However, I’m willing to risk the critical faux-pas in sharing the first words I wrote about Madeline Ashby’s iD, the sequel to her debut novel vN: “Meta as hell.” And truth be told I’m cleaning that up a little bit as somebody once informed me that it’s not classy to drop F-Bombs in the first paragraph of a review. At any rate, should Dan Harmon find himself in need of an additional writer for Community’s fifth season he would do well to consider Ashby. She possesses an impeccable talent for weaving originality out of layers of referential nods, all cumulating in subtexts so deep a single review could not do all of them justice.

iD begins a little after the concluding events of vN. Amy and Javier, the eponymous von Neumann androids of the first novel, are living on the semi-sentient island Amy fashioned as a refuge for vN who wish to live far removed from human influences. Things turn ugly when a human shows up and rapes Javier through a manipulation of the Asimov-style failsafe built into he and every other vN. Skip ahead two beats and the island implodes, the vN are scattered, the digital essence of Amy’s homicidal grandmother Portia – who has always reminded me of Shodan from System Shockescapes, and Javier, written as a protagonist with almost no personal agency, begins a quest to find Amy.

Changing perspective from Amy in vN to Javier in iD reveals something of a more brutally honest speculation on how humans might use sentient machines designed by a Millenarian doomsday church. Amy grew up in the safety of suburbia and her entry into womanhood, as well as the world at large, was that of a stranger in a strange land. The vN who iterated Javier abandoned his son to a South American prison. From there Javier’s back story parallels that of a migrant worker, only with an additional layer of debasement because he’s not human. Worse still, though a testament to the strength of the book, is how Javier always seems to be on the edge of consciousness with respect to the way he is treated. The failsafe programmed into the vN not only keeps them Three Law compliant but adds a measure of Stockholm Syndrome to their daily existence.

As a stand alone feature, this commentary and narrative voice is quite apropos. It’s also a structural safety net in case a would-be reader has been living on Mars for the last fifty years and has no framework for understanding the novel’s in-jokes, references, and allusions. For readers who can engage with Ashby’s meta-storytelling, the conflict and fine details alike strike with all the more force.

Another benefit of this metatextual writing is that it creates an instant rapport between the audience and the author, further facilitating some incredibly efficient world building when both reader and writer are on the same semiotic page. More important, however, is the ability of the referential writing to stress the underlying notion that the world of iD could be our world. When the culture, both popular and esoteric, is shared between reality and fiction it leads the reader to a place where they are hard pressed not to think about machine rights as an emerging issue if technological growth continues along its current trajectory.

At the same time, it’s not all nods and prods at the dystopian/technocratic worlds of Akira, Brazil, Portal, and Blade Runner. About half way through the novel I came across a chapter called, “The Man of Constant Sorrow.” For those who don’t know, this is the song George Clooney et al sang in Oh Brother Where Art Thou, a Coen Brothers adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. With one single chapter title it seemed like Ashby was daring me to re-read the novel through the lens of Javier as South American android Odysseus. Is the vN populated city of Mecha his Ithaca? Is Amy the story’s Penelope? I got about as far as framing the Baccarat hustler Javier meets as Cerce before I realized I was pushing even my own broad tolerance for tangents within a review. Meta as hell, indeed.

 

On a point of style, the novel’s ending felt like something of a game of chicken between Ashby and her readers. iD’s plot continues to build right up until the final pages. Only when I reached a point of “Dear god, how can she possibly finish this with so little left to the book?” did the prose adroitly call back to near-forgotten details from the opening act as a way of eloquently tying everything together. Now only one question remains: is the subtitle of The Second Machine Dynasty the island that Amy built, or the grander future she envisions for her kind at the end of iD? If the latter, does that mean we get another book?

iD is the very rare sort of sequel wherein knowledge of the first book isn’t a prerequisite. Ashby goes deeper into a future populated by humans and sentient robots without reinventing the wheel she built in vN. Though the structure of the story could be viewed through a classical lens, Javier is so far from the tropes of a Greek hero (or modern hero since they’re basically the same thing now) that he emerges as a commentary on conservative character writing. Meanwhile, the novel offers more layers than the offspring of Community and Inception, each of which says something different about design, surveillance, genetics, parenting, and other topics that I probably missed along the way. With these themes bound up in an ongoing discussion on human-machine relationships, iD proves approachable to all, but quick to reward the intelligent reader well versed ingenre storytelling.

iD – The Second Machine Dynasty by Madeline Ashby

Published by: Angry Robot Books


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Book Review: Zombie versus Fairy featuring Albinos

Last summer I read and reviewed the first entry in James Marshall’s How to End Human Suffering series. Upon finishing the book I thought to myself, “Where does he go from here?” How does a sequel keep the momentum and tone of Ninja versus Pirate Featuring Zombies when the original already turns it up to eleven in terms of a no-holds-barred allegorical experience? Thus it was with some level of reservation that I cracked the spine on Zombie versus Fairy featuring Albinos; it would either be the Empire Strikes Back of book sequels or the Highlander 2. Oh me of little faith, but I’ll get to that.

Before I continue, a word or two on context. When I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Marshall last summer I incorrectly cited his series as horror for want of any other easily named genre. James instead offered that the How to End Human Suffering series is more aptly described as “Geek literary.” When I pressed him for a definition of the term, he responded with this,

Literary is synonymous with quality. Unfortunately, it’s also synonymous with boring. “Geek literary” combines everything you expect from high quality writing with everything you expect from pop culture entertainment. For example, a lot of times, especially in Canadian lit, you get a bored lonely woman remarking on how the fields in winter are not unlike her soul. In “geek lit,” you’d have the same bored lonely woman remarking on how the fields in winter are not unlike her soul, but then a ninja would drop down from the ceiling and cut off her head. Everybody is happy.

So if NvPfZ was an experiment in geek lit, and a highly successful one at that, then ZvFfA is proof positive of what can emerge out of this fully realized approach to high concept genre writing.

Rather than focusing on Guy Boy Man, the eponymous Pirate of the first novel, ZvFfA’s protagonist is a zombie named Buck Burger. Unlike most of the other zombies in the world, who are content to revel in the consumption of human flesh and generally make a mess of the planet, Buck is depressed. It’s a deeply rooted existential malaise that sees Buck longing for something grander as he gradually comes to understand his depression is the result of the world being very depressing, and not a chemical imbalance in his head. Naturally, this makes Buck well suited for senior management within the Zombie hierarchy.

Where Mr. Marshall drew heavily upon Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in NvPfZ, this installment draws upon modern sources for its controlling metaphors. When Buck is promoted to Zombie senior management, my thoughts turned to Mustapha Mond explaining to Bernard Marx that those who truly understand the world must either live apart from it or embrace a role in managing it. Moreover, the rampant consumerism which personifies Zombie culture rings quite true as both an allusion to Huxley’s “Fordism” and a critique of our own society.

The true strength of Marshall’s style, as witnessed in this novel, is that he doesn’t limit himself to a single realm of exploration. It would be enough if ZvFfA was simply a commentary on a knowing individual’s relationship with an alienating society. Instead the story is as artistic as it is efficient in its ability to peel back the layers on Zombie/contemporary Human culture. Through Buck’s depression it then explores what it means to be a part of the metaphorical undead/great unwashed. This includes a scathing criticism of the entertainment industry, as personified by the novel’s Albinos, and a surprisingly honest examination of modern marriage that blends together the ideas of Franz Kafka and Woody Allen.

Perhaps this commitment to the reality of the setting is one of the great improvements of this book over its predecessor. NvPfZ, for all its brilliance, is bat shit crazy – and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. The central question of said book emerges as, “Is this really happening?” Is Guy Boy Man actually a pirate who stole the Pope’s hat and trillions of dollars thus precipitating a global economic meltdown? Or is he just a very disturbed teenager who has constructed a fallacy as an attempt to reclaim agency in a cruel and unfair world? ZvFfA only ever flirts with this first question. After a mere three or four chapters I took it for granted that the world, as told by Buck, is how it is. After all, why would a depressed Zombie lie about the world? If Buck was capable of dissembling on an internal level, he wouldn’t be depressed. And because the Zombie world is layered over of our world, hidden from everyday sight by magical creatures, ZvFfA invites the reader to ask not if the events of the story are true to the internal narrative, but how they as an observer would place themselves within this world. Are you contributing, like Guy Boy Man and the other devotees of Awesomeism, or you consuming, like a Zombie?

With Buck’s story, and all the subtext therein, framed by the decline and fall of his Zombie marriage, ZvFfA is wholly effective as both a stand-alone novel and the second entry in what is rapidly becoming my favourite subversively literary series. Zombie versus Fairy featuring Albinos proves that James Marshall doesn’t turn it up to 11, 11 is where he lives.

Zombie versus Fairy Featuring Albinos

Written by: James Marshall

Published by: ChiZine Publications


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Book Review: River of Stars

It has been my experience that historical fiction falls into two readily discernible categories. The first subset adds some element of fiction or liberty taking to real people, places, or events. Alternatively, historical fiction can look to history as an inspiration for an original world. The latter of these two approaches has always struck me as the more difficult proposition. If an author draws too much upon a history that is known to a reader, then they risk losing the uniqueness of their fictionalized setting. In such a situation, inspiration can often be perceived as appropriation, which is arguably an anti-creative activity. While I wouldn’t make a case for a lack of creativity within River of Stars, I did find the novel representative of a conflict between these two competing artistic impulses.

On the one hand, Mr. Kay has shaped the pre-modern civilization of Kitai with the hands of a master. No stone is unturned as he details the art, cuisine, flora, politics, tea, social anxieties, and internal history of twelfth dynasty of Kitai. Within this world, the respective stories of Ren Daiyan, the second son of an office clerk from the fringes of the empire, and Lin Shan, the educated daughter of a court gentlemen, should run in parallel to the prose’s desire to shape a setting. Yet, they do not. It takes two hundred pages before Daiyan and Shan even begin to feel like the main characters of this story. In the interim they, and almost the entirety of the Dramatis Personae, function as component parts of a larger machine whose sole purpose is to illustrate the decadence of Kitai. Robust as the characters eventually prove to be, they never feel equally important to the narration’s attempt to convey a sense of place.

Splendid as Kitai may be as an artistic creation, Mr. Kay does little to let his fictional empire stand out as unique when compared to the actual history of Imperial China. Kitai is situated as a large nation with its Eastern flank to the sea. The North of Kitai boasts a “long wall”, built during Kitai’s glory days though since ruined, as a means of separating the civilized nation from the barbarian horsemen who populate the bordering steppe. In finer points, Kitai mirrors China right down to its volatile and highly nuanced civil service. Fascinating as these details may be, I do question why the author would devote such time to reinventing the wheel in terms of setting. Why not just set the story in China? What is gained by spending so much time building a world that, to varying degrees, already exists within the reader’s mind? As much as I can appreciate the labour which went into crafting an archaeology for Kitai, there are moments when the prose seems to exist simply to justify the vast research which went into it. For a PhD dissertation this is well and good, in a novel my interests are more focused upon the originality of the conflict.

In the novel’s afterward Mr. Kay states that, “River of Stars is a work shaped by themes, characters, and events associated with China’s Northern Song Dynasty before and after the fall of Kaifeng.” On characters, the author further says, “I am significantly more at home shaping thoughts and desire for Lin Shan and Ren Daiyan…than I would be imposing needs and reflections on their inspirations.” What then emerges out of this mandate is an attempt to use an imagined place to convey a fictionalized history of real people, albeit people whose whole history has been lost to time. As a result, the narrative voice takes on the tone of a chronicler, keen to record everything and let the future decide what is noteworthy. Such a chronological method is a double edged sword. It allows Mr. Kay to create a fully realized world in River of Stars, but it is the worst offender in terms of subordinating the characters to Kitai’s broader history. Perhaps then I am somewhat disadvantaged for not having read Under Heaven, the spiritual predecessor to River of Stars. Because, I simply don’t care enough about Kitai to watch it overpower the people who live within it.

Nowhere is this reality better seen than in an ending which effectively nullifies the hero’s quest, leaving him an utter failure in his own eyes. The tragedy of Ren Daiyan becomes anti-legendary in its telling. Where traditional legends witness society elevating great individuals, River of Stars does the opposite. Mr. Kay subjects Ren Daiyan to the state demonstrating that there is no room for greatness within an officious bureaucracy. This is an interesting message in and of itself. The fact that it is filtered through the lens of Kitai, and not the reality of Song China, somewhat diminishes, rather than accentuates, the value of the subtext in my eyes.

We can see something similar in the author’s treatment of Lin Shan. As an educated woman, Shan is the consummate outsider to Katai’s polite society. She is literate, artistic, and abhors the physical and social treatment her gender receives at the hands of courtly etiquette – for example Kitai, like China, embraces the practice of foot binding. By the end of the story Shan dies under the shadow of the nation in which she lives, not as an agent of change, but as a primary source/poet. Like Daiyan, Shan never sees the world as she would want it to be made. Kitai is a monolith, and the internal legacy of Shan’s works are a monument not to herself but to Kitai. Emerging out of this point is an interesting discussion on the role of a great individual within society. Can people of note live and die as individuals, regardless of the era in which they dwell, or will some political entity always appropriate them as a symbol of collective majesty?

Bearing in mind the novel’s themes, I would suggest that Mr. Kay’s answer to the above question is a clear negative. In that light, River of Stars, though meticulously crafted, is something of a fatalistic read. Kitai’s Emperor receives his mandate from heaven and that mandate is to survive from epoch to epoch, nothing more. Though the novel features great people, their works are secondary to Kitai. Kay is certainly thorough in using fiction as a lens to view the past, yet a tendency toward exposition leaves the novel feeling somewhat uneven in its pacing. It is atypical of what I expect from historical fiction, but compelling as a tragedy if nothing else.


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Novella Review: The Salt and Iron Dialogues

At this past World Fantasy Con I had a chat with Matthew Johnson about his novel Fall From Earth. Though it had been a year since I read his book, I commented on the lasting impression he had made with his unique talent for blending a powerful narrative voice with grand world building. Then, like most readers enraptured with a compelling concept, I asked the dreaded question: did he have any plans for a sequel? At the time, the answer was no. Needless to say I was thrilled when The Salt and Iron Dialogues proved to be the second sortie into his Borderless Empire that I had been waiting for.

I hesitate to call the novella a prequel, however. Prequels are usually burdened by a motivation, or perhaps even an unfair expectation, to establish causality between distinct elements of an individual mythos. All too often the goal of explicating something subtle or somehow deemed “missing” in the original story results in an author “telling” rather than “showing” in a retroactive follow-up. Such is not the case here. Even though Salt and Iron keeps a focus on Shi-Jin, the once and future defeated revolutionary of Fall From Earth, this younger iteration doesn’t merely exist to inform her future self. We can see shades of the Shi-Jin that is to come, but the transformation from apt student to dangerous convict is still rooted firmly in the subtext and imagination of the author.

One of the most compelling aspects of this story, also witnessed in Fall From Earth, is Mr. Johnson’s ability to demonstrate the cultural and sociopolitical otherness that science fiction is capable of generating when trusted to the hands of a skilled writer. The Salt and Iron Dialogues is a story couched in history, both internal and appropriated, philosophy, and language. Indeed, the importance of language is reflected in the fact that within the Borderless Empire the Earth has been renamed “Hanzi” – which I believe, and anybody can feel free to correct me on this point, is the name for written Chinese script.

Moreover, where other stories are concerned with creating a space where the reader can insert some version of themselves, Salt and Iron does the opposite to fantastic effect. The influences of Imperial Chinese bureaucracy within the Borderless Empire and the differentiation between Shi-Jin’s native colonial language and the “Earthlang” of Hanzi tell me quite clearly that I could not easily project myself into this narrative space. I dare say that is one reason why I find this world so compelling. Equal parts genuine curiosity and a subtle desire to fit in helped to propel me through the text. Conceptually, everything within the Borderless Empire is familiar: a hegemonic government, colony planets, and space ships. Yet they are all wrapped within a hierarchical culture which is as fascinating as it is intimidating.

It’s hard not to recognize the risk in such a stylistic approach. It certainly would have been easier to craft a space British Empire in the fashion of Honor Harrington whereby readers with even a passing amount of familiarity with Horatio Hornblower, or England as a place on the map, can find a natural point of entry. Instead Salt and Iron uses internal parables, Confucian philosophy, and the allegory of a chess game to take the “barbarian” reader and colonize them into the Borderless Empire. It is science fiction for a student of the humanities.

While The Salt and Iron Dialogues stands perfectly well on its own, I can’t imagine a reader enjoying it and not wanting to engage with the larger related work. The novella can be seen as a litmus test for a reader’s willingness to engage with a polity of ideas, metaphors, and future history. Individuals coming to this story having read the aforementioned novel will no doubt revel in a chance to revisit Shi-Jin and her world.

The Salt and Iron Dialogues is written by Matthew Johnson and published by Bundoran Press


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Book Review: First Impressions of Brave New Worlds

Brave New Worlds, an anthology of dystopian short fiction edited by John Joseph Adams, came my way via Netgalley. I knew I wanted to review this collection when I saw the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Paolo Bacigalupi, Cory Doctorow, and Kim Stanley Robinson, just to name a few, in the book’s table of contents. When the review copy landed in my inbox, it proved to be something unexpected. Rather than a complete anthology, Netgalley sent me the additions included in the book’s second edition: three new short stories and a few essays.

Ah well, better than nothing.

Even on their own, these three stories work quite well as explorations of dystopian themes. As ambassadors for the larger anthology, the works of Robert Reed, Jennifer Pelland, and Ken Liu demonstrate a sound understanding of what the sub-genre owes to past writers while simultaneously examining the innocuous but potentially dystopian elements of our own contemporary world.

For want of a full anthology to review, I thought it would be fun to drill down on the stories at my disposal.

The Cull by Robert Reed

Reed approaches the dystopia through the lens of a small colony of humans who have survived the collapse of civilization. While there is still some life left on the Earth, it endures in a handful of self-contained enclaves. Thought control and social engineering contribute to most of the story’s dystopian themes. The central conflict itself speaks to the more specific issue of managing exceptional people in a controlled environment.

Orlando, one of the story’s two central characters, is equal parts bully and genius. He believes himself to be special while living within a community which necessitates an enforced egalitarianism as a means of survival. As readers we’re left to wonder if genius is capable of elevating a small community, or if such natural talent is inherently destructive for its tendency to raise the individual above society?

Personal Jesus by Jennifer Pelland

Personal Jesus is an exposition on American theocracy. Set in the near-future, the story reads as an informational brochure for new arrivals into the Ecumenical States of America. Within this devoutly protestant nation, citizens are expected to wear a “personal Jesus,” which monitors their actions for any indications of sin. The device and the state it represents are couched within the language of loving correction, but ultimately they create a national panopticon, complete with all the Orwellian trappings of anonymous informers, thought control, and forfeiture of self to a greater power.

The story evokes memories of Robert Heinlein’s If This Goes On, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and even some elements of Frank Miller’s “Martha Washington” series of graphic novels. Fascinating as the story is from a thematic point of view, Personal Jesus leaves any immediate plot or conflict as a purely sub-textual element. I would be quite surprised to find out this piece isn’t a Rosetta Stone to a larger work.

The Perfect Match by Ken Liu

Liu plays the allegory very close to the surface in his tale of technological ubiquity. In fact, I was quite leery of this story when protagonist Sai talks to an AI named “Tilly”, who acts as a combination of personal assistant and life coach, and subsequently chides his neighbour for the technophobia she directs against search engine turned tech giant Centillion. Yet the narrative, through a few twists and turns, proves wholly satisfying. Equally interesting is the The Perfect Match’s discussion on the digital age turning humans into Cyborgs, after the fashion of Donna Haraway.

The most compelling question is found when Centillion’s CEO asks Sai what he expects to find in an off-the-grid world where privacy is “protected.” Amid real world discussions on Facebook and Google mining personal information, it seems apropos for Liu to examine the endgame from both perspectives. How do we reconcile a desire, perhaps even a need, to be connected with privacy as an abstract concept? The Perfect Match does not attempt to answer these questions outright. Instead it positions itself as a think piece, challenging readers to consider technological integration, and its market impact, as an imperfect solution for an imperfect species. Is a Google crafted infosphere not a better thing than some Hobbesian state of nature? Is the self-same data aggregator a gilded cage, or a study in practical post-industrial efficiency?

Verdict

With only these stories as a sample of the entire anthology, I’m quite confident Brave New Worlds would appeal to readers with even a passing interest in exploring dystopian themes.

Brave New Words

Edited by: John Joseph Adams

Published by: Night Shade Books


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A Week With Daily Science Fiction

I’ve been an on-again off-again reader of Daily Science Fiction for the last year or so. While I have always appreciated their offerings, I only recently signed up for their story-a-day subscription service. After enjoying two weeks worth of stories mixed in with my morning coffee, I’m left wondering why I waited so long to subscribe. Even when a DSF story fails to resonate with me as a reader, the critic in me finds it impossible to dismiss the quality of the prose, not to mention the editorial variety that founders/publishers/editors Michelle-Lee Barasso and Jonathan Laden offer on a day-to-day basis.

In that light, I thought I would hide from my ever growing TBR pile and review a week’s worth of DSF short stories.

Image via: jflaxman on DeviantArt

For the People by Ronald D. Ferguson

For the People is a near-future politically themed dystopia, likely representing the worst nightmares of American Tea Partiers and their ilk. The story struck me as a combination of something drawn from Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 cycle paired with a splash of Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid “Patriotmythos.

It’s particularly interesting to see how this story explores the line between domestic terrorists and freedom fighters. While hardly a new discussion, Ferguson’s story is quite striking in its attempt to portray the terrorist as a powerless pawn in a larger game. Moreover, elements of horror manage to add an unexpected level of humanity to the main character. Though I anticipated the ending, I don’t think the author is making any serious attempt to dissemble on his denouement. The delivery is strong, the prose is evocative, and the underlying subtext on the dysfunctional elements of American government is not lost on this reader.

The Needs of Hollow Men by K.A. Rundell

Among the five stories within this particular week of DSF content, The Needs of Hollow Men is my choice for first among equals. From the title I had a horrible vision of a story about invisible people. Instead, the text presents itself as a grimy story of individual agency subjected to the good of a city-state amid a period of social decay.

Perhaps the strongest element of this story is its treatment of the psychic trope. Therein an empathic detective takes emotional suppressants as a means of amplifying the residual psychic footprints left on objects and people. The greatest crime the noir narration expounds upon, however, is not rape or murder, but two empathic individuals sharing an emotionally charged memory. It is certainly common enough to see science fiction mobilizing gifted individuals as resources, but the balance between pathos and logos is rarely so evenly struck as it is within this story. Pair this structural strength with the image of the broken down cop who has seen too much and it amounts to a truly compelling narrative.

My kudos to K.A. Rundell.

A Hairy Predicament by Melissa Mead

One of the benefits to a review project such as this is its ability to force me out of my critical comfort zone. Thus A Hairy Predicament is not something I would have read on my own. Yet it is impossible to ignore the inherent cleverness contained within this piece of writing.

The story combines the Brothers Grimm tales of Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk, examining the logical aftermath of both stories. In doing so, Mead is able to turn these tired staples of storytelling into something new. With relatively few words she adds a significant amount of depth to what would otherwise be cookie cutter character archetypes. Nobody quite lives happily ever after in this piece, but the application of modern social responsibility to classic, and often grotesque, stories meant to scare children works quite nicely.

Maps by Beth Cato

There’s a definite “real” world setting to the history of a woman who, through some supernatural power, keeps drawing maps indicating the significant life events of loved ones. Yet the story is set within a world where social workers and professional magi exist hand-in-hand. As a result, framing this story became something of a puzzle; is it new age mysticism or outright urban magic? Mayhap I should just call it slipstream and move on.

Since the protagonist, Christina, is something of a self-aware Cassandra, the narrative focuses on her self-imposed isolation from society at large. Naturally it’s hard not to feel some level of sympathy for the character. I initially read Christina’s self-mutilation as an attempt to mobilize body horror for shock value. Upon further thought, I think there’s some merit in seeing her self-harm as an allusion, if not an outright commentary, on society’s perceptions of those struggling with mental health issues.

My only point of contention with this story rests in its ending. The end is both sudden and jarring, leaving me unsure what to take from it. The story flows through Christina’s life, steadily building toward an act which will free her from foreknowledge. Once that act happens, her existence is left somewhat overly ambiguous. Can she actually live without the lifelong companionship of her maps? Or is one act of freedom going to lead to the ultimate act of freedom?

Five Minutes by Conor Powers-Smith

After reading this story I immediately thought, “This is what that Next movie should have been like.” The film, which drew a loose inspiration from PKD’s The Golden Boy, dealt with a con man who could see two minutes into the future. Five minutes’ protagonist more than doubles the abilities of Dick’s character.

Though five minutes of foresight is by no means a marginal thing, the story itself is a study into mediocrity. The protagonist doesn’t even rate a name; he is simply referred to as “the man” throughout the story, and he’s a Mets fan to top it all off (at least he’s not a Cubs fan). His heroism is a variation of the limited sort demonstrated in Greek myth when Jason carries Hera across a river. But where Jason went on to form the Hellenic Justice League, the man only catalyzes events within an appropriately small scope. We could then best view Five Minutes as a working man’s super hero story. There’s none of the perpetual handwringing of Spider-Man, but it also eschews the fetishes and god complexes of Watchmen. The man, like any normal, non-prescient person, seeks to find a purpose for himself, independent of his particular powers. In that, he is an endearing character in a story which presents a positive outlook for humanity.

Wrap-up

Two dystopias, two stories of ESP, and one twisted fairy tale amounts to a good week of reading. I look forward to seeing what Daily Science Fiction offers up in the future. Also, at the time of this post, all of these stories are available to read, for free, on the DSF website.


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Book Review: The Human Division Episode 1 – The B-Team

The B-Team is the first episode in John Scalzi’s serialized novel, The Human Division. Set within his multiple award winning Old Man’s War universe, The Human Division returns readers to the high-stakes space opera of the Colonial Union. And for this reader, the reunion could not have come soon enough.

In an attempt to maintain some level of critical objectivity, rather than collapsing outright into a squee-ing mess of Scalzi fanboyism, I approached The B-Team with one question at the forefront of my thoughts: does somebody need to read John Perry’s story, the eponymous Old Man, to appreciate this particular novel? While The Human Division is set after the events of the third/fourth book in the OMW timeline, it’s safe to say that foreknowledge of this world is not required. Be warned, however, The B-Team will yeild some rather large spoilers for the previous books.

For newcomers, Scalzi manages to accomplish in three chapters of The B-Team what he spread out over three OMW books. A scant twenty pages frame the essential science behind the Colonial Union, humanity’s near future-ish space empire, as well as the socio-political monstrosity that is the CU’s governance. Oh, and Scalzi also (re)introduces the green skinned, genetically engineered, cybernetically augmented, consciousness transferred soldiers of the Colonial Defence Force. Yet for all this introduction material, the story does not suffer. The first chapter ends with a space battle. The second is brimming with the sort of humour that has come to embody much of Scalzi’s writing. And in the third chapter The Human Division channels Radiohead in establishing an overall conflict best embodied by the song “You Do It To Yourself”. For all the aliens, starships, and super soldiers, the crux of this series is rooted in human failings.

Similarly, readers who have been waiting for this story since the end of The Last Colony/Zoe’s Tale will find a few things have changed since their last trip into Colonial space. Where readers grew into their previous understanding of the CU as John Perry rose through the ranks of the CDF, The B-Team is a little more up front. The story shifts its perspective between a team of diplomats on a peace mission and a pair of Colonels at the forefront of Colonial policy. This results in an outright revelation detailing the ways in which the CU has bungled things for Humanity in the wake of Roanoke colony.

Yet for all this grand political context, the story of the B-Team is focused and character driven. In earnest, Ambassador Abumwe, a taciturn junior diplomat, and Lt. Wilson, a CDF researcher on loan to the diplomatic corps, are just cogs in a much bigger narrative. Also, Abumwe, Wilson, and crew are about as far as one can get from James T. Kirk and any of his associated archetypes. Their story is one of people who work for a living, moving from one backwater assignment to the next, hoping to make a name for themselves in the process. This creates an instant rapport between reader and characters, which is no small accomplishment considering that Scalzi has written a truly unlikable person in Ambassador Abumwe.

There is also something to be said in the decision to release this book as a serialized novel. It’s an obvious throw-back to the days of pulp space operas, but the story itself is anything but flaky or ephemeral. Priced at 99 cents an issue, The Human Division boats a particularly good risk-reward ratio. In terms of time and money invested, there’s not a lot of loss if The B-Team doesn’t resonate with a potential reader. Meanwhile the rest of us get to endure the giddy thrill of waiting in anticipation for the following week’s installment.

As an unrepentant fan of John Scalzi’s work (seriously, I made a total dork of myself the first time I met the guy) I know I’m not exactly inclined to find fault in his writing. Yet even at my curmudgeonly best, I don’t think I could cite many flaws in The B-Team. Scalzi continues to demonstrate how military sci-fi need not be a fussy and inaccessible niche within a niche, suitable only to the prodigiously detail oriented and/or war-game aficionados. The B-Team is whip smart, funny, and strikes the perfect balance between efficiency and elegance in its prose.

The Human Division: Part 1 – The B-Team

Written by: John Scalzi

Published by: Tor


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Book Review: Fear the Abyss

In his introduction to Fear the Abyss, an anthology of dark horror and science fiction from Post Mortem Press, editor Eric Beebe asks, “What is more frightening than an unending unknown?” To answer this question, twenty-two authors present a variety of narrative insights into the relationship between curiosity’s call and the anxieties of discovery.

While these stories are well suited to the editor’s thematic mandate of exploring the science, knowledge, and fear, I believe another concept unites these stories. Almost all the fiction within Fear the Abyss probes the actual act of perception, be it visual, psychic, or something else, as both a reaction to and a means of comprehending the unknown. The tones of pessimism, nihilism, and, in a few cases, optimism which materialize out of these stories speak not simply to the construction of an imagined unknown, but how readily identifiable characters process that which is alien to them. Though the range of sub-genres is broad, from outright body horror to far-future science fiction, the experience is quite cohesive.

Honour Roll

Extraction by Jessica McHugh

Certain stories live on in a person’s memory long after they have been read. Extraction is not one of those stories. Rather, Extraction is the story that gives nightmares to all the other stories which keep a person up at night. Beginning with the phrase “I can’t stop jerking off at work,” what follows is an evocative piece of short fiction, dwelling in the cracks between body horror and contemporary science fiction.

It naturally follows that McHugh’s text is somewhat challenging to read. In exploring a literal form of human alienation, the story risks evoking a particularly sour taste from the reader. For me, the experience prompted equal measures of repulsion and fascination, akin to the first time I watched Hellraiser. Throughout the text, motifs of desire and addiction collide in what is quite rightly a reproductive grotesquery. Unsettling as the imagery may be, it’s not exploitative so much as an attempt to relocate the reader from a safe conceptual realm into a place where any pop culture preconceptions of the fantastic are stripped away. The remnant is a vision of reality which frames the great “other” as something genuinely horrifying to behold.

That Which Does Not Kill You by Matt Moore

Matt Moore offers a near-future war story that blends the best elements of Shelley’s Frankenstein and Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Though there are some aspects of body horror in the story, its raison d’etre seems to be an inquiry into the consequences of denying agency to its two central characters. A number of interesting questions emerge out of this denial of control. Should we have to confront the horrors of our world if there is an escape at hand? At what point do we accept our circumstances rather than trying to work around them?

There’s also a strong juxtaposition between the characters’ inner conflict and the war going on around them. It’s an almost MASH like quality which sees the grand questions of the war ignored. Instead, the story focuses on the war’s casualties, in both physical and psychological terms. In shining just enough light on battlefield apparati to avoid being bogged down in back story, That Which Does Not Kill You showcases the cheapness of life and death in a war where soldiers are adjuncts to military hardware.

The American by S.C. Hayden

I have been waiting for a story like The American for as long as long as I’ve been genre fiction. To me, there’s nothing more tiring than stories which try to shock me with the battle for Heaven as waged on contemporary Earth. We’ve all seen The Exorcist, and most everything that has followed after that, regardless of medium, has been variations on the theme. Moreover, stories of demonic possession often presume too heavily upon the audience’s ability to be moved by the Judeo-Christian legacy.

The American begins as a deceptively derivative story about demonic possession. And then with one perfectly placed knock-out paragraph, which can not be discussed without moving into the realm of spoiling, it takes a tired trope of Christian pseudo-mysticism and places it firmly within a post-modern context. It’s short, smart, and manages to double down on subversion in a genre niche which is firmly rooted in ignorance and superstition.

Life After Dead by Jeyn Roberts

Anytime a writer does something different with zombies, I’m going to pay attention. Though unique in its own right, there are echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road within Life After Dead. Post zombie Vancouver is a bleak and desolate place. The heady thrill of immediate survival, as seen in so many zombie stories/films, has given way to resource scarcity and a profound existential void. The survivors are forced to reconcile their continued existence with the reality that modern city dwellers don’t know how to do anything when it comes to survival in the purest sense of the word.

Now if this story only worked with the above mentioned elements, it would likely still be doing enough to land on my honour roll. The mid-story transformation, however, really makes Life After Dead stand out from the horde. It’s a common enough thing to see a zombie apocalypse survivor putting down an infected loved one; the bio-political struggle between monster and sickie is pretty much standard fare in a post World War Z world. Rather than peeling away another layer of that onion, Roberts’ inverts the format. The result is unexpected and emotionally resonant. A survival narrative morphs into a story about love, and love is rarely handled with such adroit among the undead.

What We Found by Andrew Nienaber

When a writer frames a story around the question “Are we alone,” the answer is almost always yes; I call it the Sagan Doctrine. Answering one of science fiction’s most holy questions with a definitive negative invites not only the wrath of optimistic readers but also opens the door to fundamental questions about the purpose of the narrative itself. Through a survivor’s final words for a future that may never come, Mr. Nienaber imagines the psychological, as well as practical, consequences of terrestrial life as a cosmic accident.

The emerging story is simultaneously a commentary on the ever present isolation and dread of urban life, as well as a thought experiment on humans as creatures of hope. If humanity was confronted with absolute knowledge of our loneliness in the cosmos, would that realisation become a viral meme capable of flaying the humanity out of those who come in contact with it? Could we, as a people who strive to greater and greater heights, cope with a universe beholden unto ourselves? It is a troubling question, but one relevant to a world which pushes the frontiers of astronomy and quantum physics with each passing year.

Honourable Mentions

A Box of Candy by Nelson W. Pyles: A classic ghost tale focused through the lens of Quentin Tarantino style revenge.

Broken Promises by Jamie Lackey: My first thoughts after reading: this is what Prometheus should have been.

The Nostalgiac by Robert Essig: Hitchcock flavoured sci-fi horror focusing on working class characters.

The Bottom Line

Of the twenty-two stories contained within Fear the Abyss, there were only five which didn’t strike some sort of meaningful chord with me. The writers mobilize a broad range of styles and genres to plumb the depths of fear, knowledge, and perception. Would that The Outer Limits were reborn on HBO, freed from the conservatism of network television, I expect its first season would look something like Fear the Abyss.

Fear the Abyss

Edited by: Eric Beebe

Published by: Post Mortem Press


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Book Review: Stranded

I grabbed Bell Bridge Books’ Stranded anthology off NetGalley for the simplest of reasons; the cover art appealed to me. To my knowledge, I haven’t read anything by the book’s trio of contributing story tellers: James Alan Gardner, Anne Bishop, and Anthony Francis. For that and many other reasons, I found Stranded to be something of a surprising experience. Though I haven’t found anything official which brands the text as a Young Adult anthology, it could certainly pass as one. The protagonists in Gardner’s A Host of Leeches and Bishop’s A Strand in the Web are both adolescent females cast into a world of adult problems. One of Francis’ main characters is an adolescent Centaur who finds herself amid a far future take on Lord of the Flies.

Before I dive into the stories, I would be remiss if I didn’t devote a few words on the overall editing of this anthology. In short, it’s poor.

In fact, I’m rather insulted as both a reader and a critic that Bell Bridge Books would let their eARC go to market with such shoddy formatting. The book’s preamble and introduction come in multiple fonts and sizes. At one point the author’s names are jumbled together as,

“Anne Bishop James Alan

Gardner Anthony Francis”

Within the novellas there are literally dozens of errors in spacing. At one point I thought A Host of Leeches to be an experimental prose poem as there are many unwarranted carriage returns. Beyond breaking up the flow of the text, these errors regularly made dialogue a chore to follow. I suppose there is a chance something very bad happened in downloading the ebook from NetGalley to my Kindle. However, if this eARC represents the final sale edition of Stranded I would not recommend a single reader subject themselves to parsing the digital version of this text.

My other editorial concern rests with the location of the author’s note as an antecedent to each novella. Perhaps I’m turning into a curmudgeon, but I don’t like to be told how to read a story. After the fact I enjoy learning about an author’s influences and intentions. Yet I can’t help but see Mr. Gardner’s directive to “Mix together The Omega Man, The Wizard of Oz and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick or Lonesome No More” as a poison pill. Both Bishop’s and Francis’ author’s note are guilty of the same thing. I don’t blame writers for wanting to draw a certain attention to their works, I do however question why the editors thought it necessary to take my experience, a perfect tabula rasa with respect to these authors, and preload it with potentially prejudicial information. What if I hated The Omega Man (I don’t) and thought Heston a ponce (I don’t) for his part in it?

Enough of the nuts and bolts though, let’s turn our attention to the substance of the stories.

A Host of Leeches by James Alan Gardner

Gardner introduces the anthology with a near-future SF piece set aboard a space station inhabited by sentient war robots. Orbiting the Earth, the colony is a gulag where the nations of the world abandoned the remnants of a cold war that very nearly went hot. When a plague breaks out on Earth, Alyssa Magord, the lone survivor of the initial infection, is exiled to the station while the powers that be decide her fate. Though neither Alyssa nor the machines dwell too heavily on the subject, A Host of Leeches is effective in its opening movements as an editorial on managing the sick and unwelcome within a society.

Free from even the slightest whiff of Asimov’s Three Laws, the AI’s make for clever reading. Bound by programming, a  coldly logical Skynet-esque AI carries out a limited war against an equally intelligent spy drone, who is deliberately programmed to be emotional as a means of subverting her rival’s logic. Abandoned by their creators and facing possible annihilation due to the “sickie” in their midst, there is a genuine sense of tension on the part of the robots. Thus the machines’ struggle for survival is a meaningful one.

There is also some interesting subtext coming off the symbiotic relationship between Alyssa and her bio-engineered “aut”. Although the description of Balla the Aut left me with images of Moon’s Gerty hybridized with a Skrill from Earth: Final Conflict, the creature allowed for some insights into a culture ordered on ideology rather than nationality. Fascinating as they these details are, they do little to move the story forward.

Even if A Host of Leeches is somewhat inconsistent in its pacing, the writing is clever enough to begin as one story, manipulate the reader’s expectations, and then end on a somewhat different trajectory.

A Strand in the Web by Anne Bishop

Arguably the strongest novella within the collection, A Strand in the Web is an environmentally themed story of human Diaspora. Set aboard a massive city-ship, the plot follows a team of students in terra-forming school. Fair warning, there is a certain amount of teenage drama as Willow, the novella’s central character, gains access to a special project wherein she is appointed a full “Restorer” in charge of creating a balanced ecosystem on remote island on a nameless dead planet. Yet a decided lack of teenage angst, the presence of adult responsibilities on the part of Willow and her paramour, and fantastic story telling make this piece suitable for audiences older than the characters.

Though it describes a cold and sterile environment, there’s a seductive quality about the prose. Bishop creates a setting rich with its own sense of internal history. At the same time, she never forces expository dialogue between the characters for the benefit of the audience. Emotional conflicts between the players become touchstones for the realities of a life encapsulated in a starship. Shipboard malfunctions underpin the essential frailty of life, a motif very much the core of this story. As much as the book prompts questions which demand immediate resolution, Bishop’s eloquent style reassures readers that answers will follow. When they do, they validate pre-existing hypotheses as much as they turn them on their ear.

With the organic cycle of life, death, and rebirth as a constant thematic catalyst, some elements of A Strand in the Web may seem predictable. Ultimately though, the narrative’s movement through those phases is satisfying. Certainly on par with Paolo Bacigalupi’s ability to wreck the world, A Strand in the Web stands apart by remaining cautiously optimistic in its belief that humanity is capable of redeeming itself.

Stranded by Anthony Francis

The anthology draws its name and cover art from this novella. Stranded offers two stories that gradually intersect with each other. The first explores adolescent power struggles after the fashion of Lord of the Flies – in this case it is a “might makes right” conflict divided along lines of gender and sexual identity. The second is a study in youthful rebellion provoked by over-achieving parents and grandparents as a consequence of quasi-immortality. Neither plot thread, nor their union in the second half of the story, particularly resonated with me.

Though the themes would certainly be more in tune with a younger reader, I question if the approach would work. Stranded boasts a strongly didactic tone during some sections of exposition. One character goes so far as to deliver a sermon on sexuality and equality, couching it within the story’s extensive, opaque, and ultimately irrelevant mythology. Though I can’t speak for a current YA audience, I remember viewing all attempts to edutaine as the worst sort of condescension.

I’ll also concede I would likely be more receptive to the story were it not for a very early imposition on my suspension of disbelief. Dr. Francis’ webpage speaks of his love of “hard science” within his Dakota Frost series of novels. Yet almost out of the gate Stranded discusses, “bodies grown slender and toned in zero-gee.” A 2005 article from Scientific American, James Patrick Kelly’s Breakaway, Backdown and Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress all suggest that toned athleticism is not a probable outcome of spending an appreciable duration of time in null gravity. This plot point becomes all the more troubling later in the story when the aforementioned zero-g denizens crash on a planet, yet are capable of doing more than rolling around under the agony of a gravity well.

By the end of the story I found my interest focused more on the details of the universe than the adventure at hand.

The Bottom Line

As the saying goes, two out of three isn’t bad. It’s more than enough for me to recommend the Stranded anthology with the caveat that the actual ebook edition shows more polish than my eARC. Bishop’s novella is as smart as it is heartbreaking. Gardner offers a unique twist on the man meets sentient machine trope. And Francis’ story exists within a rich setting, even if its approach and subject matter may not have much appeal for an adult reader.