Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review of Heroes & Villains by Lewis Shiner

In the introduction to his 2017 collection Heroes and Villains, Lewis Shiner points out that the best length for purely entertaining fiction, whether it be horror, action, spy thriller, etc., is the novella.  And I have to agree.  If you want to relax after a long day and just escape for an hour or two into a complete story that does not tax the brain, a novella can really hit the spot.  Putting his money where his mouth is, Heroes and Villains (2017, Subterranean Press) features three novellas previously published in Subterranean magazine, as well as one original short story.  Representing the more genre-heavy side of Shiner’s fiction, it is a relaxing, escapist collection.

Like the film Valkyrie but with a Houdini twist, “The Black Sun” tells of a group of stage magicians who hatch a plot to take down Hitler.  Playing with the Fuhrer’s belief in the magical, destructive potential for the Spear of Destiny, the group devise an intricate plan, complete with ‘stage effects’.  Near misses abound setting up their plan, when the big day comes all their cards are on the table.  The time and place of Hitler’s real death a historical fact, from the outset the group’s goal would seem to be a failure—or the set up for an alternate history.  Surprisingly, Shiner takes a third option.  To say more would naturally spoil matters, but at least I can say the build up is resolved in organic fashion.  The story backdrop probably could have been expanded a touch (there is a bit of character and setting detail missing, details that normally give a story that full feeling), but the build up and climax make it worthwhile.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Review of Amatka by Karin Tidbeck

Karin Tidbeck arrived on the English language scene around 2012 with several quality short stories collected in Jagganath.  “Sing”, “Reindeer Mountain” and others received a variety of critical attention, primarily for their ethereal fairy-tale qualities that were far more Weird than princesses, knights in shining armor, or majestic castles.  In 2017 Tidbeck makes her English language debut in novel form with Amatka.  A work of dystopian science fiction that feels like a very bland offshoot of Ursula Le Guin and Clifford Simak, I think it’s fair to say Tidbeck’s strengths lie in Jagganath-type material…

Amatka is the story of Vanja.  Marketing researcher for a personal hygiene company, she is asked by her firm to make a cross-continental trip to the industrial city of Amatka to discover brands the shops stock, gaps in the local market, and what the most popular products are among its people.  Amatka a communal society, after filling out the appropriate forms Vanja is provided a room and given free rein to wander the city.  Meeting her roommates, the librarian, and a rebellious older woman named Ula, Vanja slowly becomes aware of skeletons in Amatka’s closet, and begins to ask questions about the rote and routine of society.  Why do the people need to read and repeat the names of solid objects, like a pen or suitcase, for them to retain their shape?  Why does the commune enforce societal parenting?  And why does the recorded history of the poet Erren not quite fit reality?  Needing to take some bold steps to get answers to these questions, Vanja’s life finds a new road by the end of Amatka.

Friday, September 15, 2017

What Comes Next: Questions & Potential Answers Regarding The No-God Duology

In the wake of reading my review of The Unholy Consult, R. Scott Bakker’s concluding volume to the Aspect-Emperor series, a gentleman from the Second Apocalypse forum (the place for discussion on anything Earwa) contacted me privately, asking what I thought of the conclusion to The Unholy Consult and my opinion what might come next—what the follow up and concluding duology, tentatively titled The No-God series, might hold for readers. The more I thought about answers to these questions, the more I realized I should organize them ‘on paper’, and if going that far, why not post them. So, if you haven’t read The Unholy Consult, do not read this post as it will contain major spoilers.  (Another warning, I am writing this with extremely little knowledge of what's happening in forums and other discussions on the Second Apocalypse, so apologies if it seems naive to readers who have invested themselves significantly more than than me into the series.)

Before I dive in, I should note that I read somewhere a while ago (of course I can’t find it now) that all along Bakker had in his mind a solid outline for the series to date, and generally stuck to it throughout the writing, but has only a relatively concrete path before him for the next series. For those not paying attention, this means a few things:

1. The abrupt ending of The Unholy Consult was planned all along, and should be considered as such
2. The bulk of Bakker’s thematic agenda has been delivered
3. Anything that comes after is likely to be more complementary and confirming than developmental or game-changing

Therefore, the question is: where to go from the rise of the No-God and the dawn of the Second-Apocalypse?  Before getting into the possibilities, we need to establish three key baselines.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review of The Unholy Consult by R. Scott Bakker

Mao Zedong, Jan Sobieski, George W. Bush—there are innumerable people throughout history who were good at attaining positions of power, and yet seemingly helpless afterwards to maintain that power through good decisions that benefited the society they ruled.  I daresay the same is true for a lot of epic fantasy.  Many authors do a good job building their world and characters as well as instilling dynamics that make the reader want to continue reading, but the closer they get to the ‘grand climax’, the lower the quality of the overarching story becomes.  This has not been a problem for R. Scott Bakker.  The Prince of Nothing trilogy started strong and ended with a bang.  Now, with the publishing of the fourth and final book in The Aspect-Emperor series, The Unholy Consult (2017), Bakker proves no fluke.  Ending with a BANG, it’s a veritable fireworks display that is everything avid readers have been hoping it would be.

Normally I give a brief plot introduction in my reviews, but for The Unholy Consult it seems unnecessary.  For those who have read The Great Ordeal, that is the introduction (and if you haven’t read it, you shouldn’t be reading this review).  Besides, Bakker includes a few pages at the beginning of The Unholy Consult, as he has done with all the series’ books thus far, summarizing events in Earwa. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Review of Daughter of Eden by Chris Beckett

When I was young and believed in the Christian god, a few questions nagged at the back of my mind: every religion seems to have its own holy book, its own cosmology, its own sacred rote and routine, and its own unshakable belief it is the One. True. Religion.  How can they all be right?  And isn’t it a bit funny that the majority of people end up believing the religion they were raised closest too—the easy road?  Thankfully these questions, along with the realization of a lot of other logical fallacies, achieved prominence to the point I gave up on Christianity, and organized religion in general.  I can say I am a happier person for it.  But what about the people for whom such mythologies are necessary—existence unthinkable without some religious framework to explain it?  Chris Beckett’s 2016 Daughter of Eden, third in the Eden series, answers this question, and in the process forms the perfect bookend to the original novel, Dark Eden.

More than 200 years have passed since the events of Dark Eden.  Johnfolk, Davidfolk, and Jefffolk have started spreading themselves over the known parts of Eden and established a variety of villages, even a few bigger towns.  At the outset of the novel a woman names Angela is rowing across World Pool to sell goods at a Davidfolk village.  The trip is cut short, however, when she sees in the distance a small fleet of Johnfolk, armed to the teeth, coming across the water.  Returning to her village to raise the alarm, Angela, her family, and fellow villagers flee into the woods in an attempt to escape.  They run and run, until, encountering the most hoped for and yet seemingly unlikely thing that could ever happen on all of Eden.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Review of 2084: The Anthology ed. by George Sandison

I think it’s fair to say George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four is one of the most enduring novels of the 20th century.  Playing off real and perceived fears regarding communist states, there remain a small number of governments exemplifying the tyranny of Big Brother even in the 21st century.  But brainwashing and oppression are not always a grand political scheme orchestrated from the very top.  It likewise exists in other aspects of life, from race to culture, shopping to beauty.  Feeling the time ripe to discover the breadth of ideas the term Orwellian has come to span, George Sandison, editor at Unsung Stories, decided to commission a bevy of writers to produce short stories offering a contemporary perspective on the quiet ways brainwashing, "brainwashing", and oppression might be used, or are currently being used, among us.  2084: The Anthology the result, it is a surprisingly varied anthology of original material that stands out as one of the year’s best.

Gaining momentum with time, the anthology opens a touch slow.  “Babylon” by Dave Hutchinson attempts to present a future European Union as tyrannical for its immigration policies.  Packing too many large ideas into a small story, it tells of a Somalian refugee being smuggled across the Mediterranean and the racial surprise he has planned upon arrival on European soil.  Seeming to run with far-left opinion (ironically the type of faith in media Orwell sought to expose), it does not recognize the effort the EU (not without resistance, natch) has made bringing in refugees and immigrants.  Worse yet, Hutchinson doesn’t play fair when stacking the deck entirely in his favor: the Somali man is without creed or religion, and possesses a cosmopolitan knowledge of language, culture, and James Bond-style counter intelligence, i.e. not very representative of the average Somalian immigrant, just as a European Union bent on preventing all non-white immigrants from entering the continent is likewise not wholly representative…  In something loosely resembling a morlocks/eloi situation, “Here Comes the Flood” by Desirina Boskovich is a bleak future wherein the current capitalist glut has consumed most of the world’s resources, forcing the affluent to live underground. The people living on the surface under the burning sun fight to join them while the people underground fight to keep them out.  Told from a domestic perspective, this dichotomy comes across as very human.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Console Corner: Review of Firewatch

As I mentioned in the intro to why I opened Console Corner—the section of Speculiction devoted to video games, it has been a learning experience discovering what are considered ‘good games’ by people who never left the gaming scene for many years and returned, as I did.  One such game that has received a good amount of positive buzz in the past year or more is Firewatch by Campo Santo.  The internet steering me in the right direction with Witcher 3, Journey, and Inside, I put to the test its Firewatch recommendation.  I’ll take the blame for that one.

Firewatch is a few months in the life of Henry, a middle-aged, middle-class man who has escaped to a Wyoming national park to be a fire warden in the hopes of escaping personal and relationship troubles.  But trouble is waiting.  Stationed at a remote lookout tower, a pair of teens begin setting off fireworks in the dry forest on his first day, requiring Henry to chase them down.  Returning to the tower that evening, he sees a strange man lurking in the trees, and later discovers someone has rifled through his belongings in the tower.  But the strangest thing of all is fellow warden Delilah, a woman stationed at a nearby tower he has contact with only through his radio.  Henry hears her saying things that likely she doesn’t want him hearing…  

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review of Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

While perhaps not the greatest film ever made, Duplicity nevertheless touches upon a premise rarely used: corporate spying.  ‘Corporate’ of course the key word in that term, lots of spying has been done in films, just little of it oriented toward gathering information that can be used to gain some advantage on the market over competitors.  But a company’s undisclosed research data is a concrete entity; it can be stolen, leading to the question: what of the more subjective elements leading to a firm’s success on the market—branding, design, logos, and marketing campaigns?  And what of the underworld below?  William Gibson’s 2003 Pattern Recognition is the novel capturing this idea in a contemporary, corporate world.

Cayce is a ‘coolhunter’.  At some conscious level she is aware of what logos or ideas will be popular and which not, and as such hires out her abilities to various companies, providing recommendations on their latest brand proposals.  Contracted by a marketing consultant named called Blue Ant at the outset of Pattern Recognition, Cayce is asked to evaluate the latest logo designs for a London company.  Once her evaluation is complete, however, her work is not done for Blue Ant.  Brought on full-time by the CEO, a man named Bigend, Cayce is asked to track down the maker of indie films being leaked onto the internet.  The films causing a serious buzz, Bigend gives Cayce an unlimited credit card and sends her off to find the creator.  Where Cayce ends up, however, is anything but the corporate backroom.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Review of Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories by Terry Bisson

There is the NY Times bestseller list, and then there are the numerous high quality writers plugging away in dark corners, producing what is often more considered, more sophisticated material for quieter applause.  Jonathan Carrol, Maureen McHugh, James Morrow, James Blaylock, John Kessel, Caitlin Kiernan, Kij Johnson, Andy Duncan, Rachel Swirsky—these are writers whose names are known by a few, but who will never achieve bestseller lists without lowering the standards for their work.  Terry Bisson is one of these writers, and his first collection Bears Discover Fire and Other Stories (1993) is a great example why.

The collection opening on the title piece, “Bears Discover Fire” is the elegaic story of an uncle, his nephew, and his old-fashioned mother as they sit around a campfire in the woods.  Portraying the end of America’s Golden Age in anything but obvious terms, it’s intriguing to discover the directness of the title even as the story’s message unfolds allegorically.  Wonderful commentary on so-called ‘literary fiction’ and ‘speculative fiction’ by using the creators themselves, “The Two Janets” hits the proverbial nail on the head in identifying the relationship between the two, and does so using the most obvious elements yet combining them in less than obvious fashion.  The collection contains several dialogue-only stories, of which “They're Made Out of Meat” is the first.  Two aliens discussing the finding of a strange species made of meat on a planet called Earth, the pair have an amusing dialogue before a dose of cold, sober reality grounds the story in human perspective.  Likely the most standard (i.e. plot and character driven) piece in the collection, “Over Flat Mountain” tells of a long haul truck driver and the hitchhiker he picks up crossing the recently uplifted Appalachians.  Now eighteen miles in height, the mountains force transport truckers to don air suits and have specific medicines available for low atmosphere.  They also give need to a certain readiness for evolutionary changes brought about by the rise in elevation…

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review of The Twilight Pariah by Jeffrey Ford

The horror genre is so intrinsically limited in scope that the past one hundred+ years of such stories have brought us to the point where the only way to be original is to instill new genre blood (romance, fantasy, etc.).  All other stories have been written, or the interstices are so minimal as to be almost negligible.  This means writers who want to till the same ground must bring their best chops to the table to ensure their oh so familiar material is at least sound in technique, and thus make the reading enjoyable at the surface level.  I believe this is the best way to describe Jeffrey Ford’s 2017 The Twilight Pariah (

A haunted house story, The Twilight Pariah tells of a trio of friends on summer break from university.  Maggie is studying archeology, and convinces the other two, Russell and Henry, to join her on a mini-venture to an abandoned mansion to dig through the outhouse pit in the hopes of finding some antiques that might earn them a little spending money.  The digging needing to be done at night as the three are unsure who has property rights to the mansion, strange sounds accompany their late night excavations, culminating in an unbelievable, otherworldy find at the bottom of the pit.  Wrapping and stuffing it into the trunk of Maggie’s car, the three head back to town, only for stranger things to start happening.  People being murdered in their sleep as the trio seek answers to their find, the sleepy little Midwestern town will never be the same.*