Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review of The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts



If there is anything the world never seems to tire of, it’s the murder mystery.  (If it were the US, I would say mass shootings...)  Likely the first form, if not the most basic form of genre, the number of iterations of: figuring out how someone died and apprehending the culprit may just occupy the largest percentage of books, film, and television in the West.  Dabbling in the murder mystery medium in Jack Glass, in 2017 Adam Roberts returns with another pop-sf effort in The Real-Town Murders.  And is it ever slaPdaSh.

More specifically a locked-room mystery (we even have sub-genres of murder), The Real-Town Murders opens with private investigator Alma on the scene of the crime.  An auto-mobile manufactory, she watches the security video of a car being 3D printed from raw materials on the factory floor, guided only by the hands of robots, yet a corpse somehow ending up in the car’s trunk at the end of the process.  The factory’s AI no help, Alma turns to interview the QA employee who found the body, but is quickly cut-off by a high-level government investigator.  Brought to the morgue, Alma is shown the corpse and politely informed she is off the case; the government will take over.  Upon returning home and discovering her data feed has been wiped of all information related to the case, Alma is contacted by a person who claims to have top secret information about the murder.  Meeting the shadowy man at a nearby cafĂ©, it isn’t long before Alma is dragged back into the case—if not just to find out how the murder was done.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Review of The Death of Grass by John Christopher



In the decades following the second world war, disaster/catastrophe fiction was something of a thing in British fiction.  From John Wyndham to J.G. Ballard, a variety of scenarios, some more and some less believable, were imagined depicting the human reaction to massive and abrupt social and environmental change.  Wyndham’s falling-star blindness followed by mutant, carnivorous plants that just so happen to prey on the blind is beyond far-fetched, but Ballard’s The Burning World (aka The Drought) remains a realistic look at the psyche in response to mass water shortages—the only real science fictional element in fact being the premise.  Throwing his hat into the catastrophe ring in 1956 was Sam Youd (better known by his pen name, John Christopher) with The Death of Grass (published in the US as No Blade of Grass).  William Golding’s Lord of the Flies meets Ballard’s The Drought, Christopher produced an inconsistent, dramatic, and occasionally thought-provoking fashion story of an England turned upside down by lack of food.

A plot introduction to The Death of Grass is quite a simple affair: a 1950s’ era England deals with the effects of a plant virus that wipes out grain production and causes a major food shortage, in turn throwing the country into chaos.  The tale told through the eyes of one John Custance, the man must take a journey from ravaged London to his brother’s farm in the countryside where a well-protected valley promises safety and provisions for he, his family, and a small handful of hangers-on looking to escape the brutal realities of humanity gone feral. The majority of the novel’s content found in situations where John must make the most dire of decisions and the resulting ethical quandaries, often egged on by his brutal companion Pirri, to elaborate would spoil the story.  Suffice to say Christopher uses tight prose to depict scenes which put humanities’ atavistic and civilized aspects at odds with one another in provocative fashion.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Review of The Humans by Matt Haig



Cute, charming, colorful, feel-good—it’s tough to find a toe-hold to open a review of Matt Haig’s 2013 The Humans.  Just intelligent enough to stray the right side of maudlin, it’s a story that confirms humanity’s foibles in a tried and true fashion, but does so at least with a bit of clever and endearing wit.  And that, I suppose, is where it’s value lies. 

Solving the Riemann hypothesis apparently the key to unlocking humanity’s spread across the universe, an alien race called the Vonnadorians find out that Earthlings are on the verge of discovering the solution and take steps to prevent this by sending one of their own to prevent it.  Killing and taking the form of math professor Andrew Martin, the Vonnadorian arrives on Earth with minimum knowledge and maximum loathing for humans.  He also arrives completely naked, and is forced through a gauntlet of police and newspaper stories to get back to some sense of domestic normalcy.  Cutting right to the chase, “Andrew” kills colleagues and acquaintances who are aware of his research into Riemann’s hypothesis, but slowly, through interaction with his wife, despondent teenage son, mistress, and friends, he learns what it means to be human.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review of The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss



Brian Aldiss, certainly one of the tip-top science fiction writers of all time, passed away a couple weeks ago, and in honor I decided to pull one of my unread Aldiss novels off the shelf and have a go.  No two pieces of Aldiss’ fiction the same, it was impossible to predict what The Malacia Tapestry (1976) would be.  And the cover is zero help.  Unless the reader has read an adept review or two, then it’s very likely the pulp image would entirely misguide them.  But this is Aldiss we’re discussing, and The Malacia Tapestry is much more than Golden Age escapism.  In an interesting twist, Jack Vance might have played a hand, however…

The Malacia Tapestry is about Perian de Chirolo and what is likely the most formative year of his life.  Playboy actor working the stage in the Renassaince-ish, Italian-ish city of Malacia, he lives in poverty yet devotes his life to pleasures—chasing women, bumming a good meal, and getting drunk with equally lascivious friends.  A complete cad, Perian’s life takes a new direction (little to his knowledge) when he agrees to a job acting, rather posing, for scenes in a new type of still-life art created by a renegade inventor/artist named Bergstohn.  Bergstohn part da Vinci and part Wagner, he is a Progressive who has developed a zahnatascope (primitive camera) that he intends to use, under the sponsorship of a wealthy Malacian lord named Hoytola, to create a series of images that will tell a politically dissident story.  Hoytola’s daughter, the beautiful Armida, has likewise agreed to act in the still-life play, and Perian falls madly in love.  Bergstohn having many other subversive plans for Malacia, time will tell the effect on Perian as he is drawn deeper into Armida’s web.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Vegas...



I’m pissed off—again yes, but this time more than usual.  Vegas, and yet another mass shooting in the USA.  Guns are not solely to blame; there are social and cultural issues that also played a role.  But dammit, guns are the main reason.  The guy had mental and social problems, clearly, and the type of free-gun society that exists in the US played right into his hands, along with the hands of the other crazy people who appear about every year or two doing exactly the same thing.  The availability of guns enabled rather than hindered his insane ideas, and there is no arguing around that.

For the record, I’m pro-hunting though I don’t hunt. (Anybody who eats meat or wears leather has no right to be anti-hunting.)  But I am for extremely strong regulations that force every person who wants a gun to go through rigorous testing—physical, psychological, etc.—in order to get a license.  Like the check-in process before getting on an airplane, I trust that the majority of people who use their guns for hunting and target shooting wouldn’t mind subjecting themselves to testing knowing that its ultimate purpose is to weed out the maligned, and would in the end make the US a safer place.  In the legal arena, anything that resembles automatic weaponry, or its accessories, should be prohibited from the market.  Guns should only be sold through official government shops that match gun registration numbers to registered licenses. There should be limits on the number of guns licensed people can own (two or three seems reasonable, unlike this).  And gun manufacturers should be limited in the volumes and types of weapons they are allowed to produce.  Yes, you heard me, no open market on the gun industry.  (Which is more valuable: national GDP or the thousands of people who die each year due to gun violence?)  Stronger regulations would not eliminate gun deaths, but would, if done properly, eventually bring the US into line with the majority of the Western world in terms of gun-death statistics.  

I am American but for the past eight years I have lived in Europe, a continent which is not immune to shootings but for which the frequency and death toll of those events when they occur is exponentially smaller (save Norway, of course).  Guess what, guns are heavily, heavily restricted here.  In Poland where I live the licensing process takes roughly a year, and includes a psychological evaluation, target practice (like a driver’s license test), background search and criminal record evaluation, a written exam, as well as interviews with authorities.  There is no reason why a similar process could not be implemented in the US.  Bad people would still be able to get guns, just like in Poland, but the average crazy guy would not be able to go to his local Walmart and with the flick of a credit card become a mass murderer, which would reduce the number of such instances drastically.

God fucking dammit, almost sixty innocent killed and nearly 600 injured in Vegas, and still the message that GUNS ARE A PROBLEM continues to be ignored where it matters in the US!  It's crazy to me that people will buy more guns after this event, considering there is nothing about owning a gun that could prevented the situation save the lack of guns.

My thoughts go out to the victims of the attack, but most especially the people in the future who will be victims, as, sure as rain it will happen again in a year or two unless something massive changes in gun regulations. Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me 267 times, shame on the government and its politicians for being too weak to overcome the gun lobby and enact better laws that prevent shame...

Monday, October 2, 2017

Console Corner: Review of Horizon: Zero Dawn



While eating breakfast or late in the evening before sleep, I will sometimes watch video game reviews and trailers.  I like to see what’s out there to play, or what’s coming.  But after a while, it all starts to blend together.  Fall Cry, Battle Duty, Destiny Effect, Elder Divinity, Last Walking Dead—there seems an endless progression of scenarios intended to maximize the potential for shooting and stabbing in a world rendered unique by some premise or another.  With more three decades of video games in the rearview, unique has become relative, and coming up with a quality, original IP is very difficult.  But not impossible.  Grounding itself in fundamental gameplay, ensuring the little details are correct, and building off said three decades of wisdom, Guerilla Games’ 2017 Horizon: Zero Dawn delivers a unique world and a quality, enjoyable experience.

But watching the trailers for H:ZD, I initially had doubts.  Fighting robot dinosaurs in a primitive world, how cheesy’ was my first thought.  But after watching some of the gameplay, noticing some of the subtle details and quality of the graphics, learning the storyline was actually post-apocalyptic rather than old-world primitive, and seeing the potential of the combat system, I was intrigued.  When early reviews from across the gaming community all came back positive, I thought why not?  Having now completed the game, why not indeed?

Friday, September 29, 2017

Review of Totalitopia by John Crowley



One of America’s best kept literary secrets (Little, Big may just be the great American novel), John Crowley returns to the printed page in 2017 with what is truly a fan’s collection in Totalitopia.  Reprinting a few shorts stories, two-and-a-half essays (I don’t know whether to call the review of Paul Park’s oeuvre an essay, paper, article, etc.), as well as a new, in-depth author interview, it makes for an excellent sampler platter that includes fiction but likewise goes beyond to offer a behind the scenes look at some of the realities behind said fiction—a fan’s collection.

Looking at the fiction in Totalitopia, “This Is Our Town” is a nostalgic piece, and opens the collection with one man’s reminiscences of his upbringing during America’s Golden Age, particularly his relationship with the Catholic church and how it relates to his present day life.  An open-ended story rather than a definitive view on religion, Crowley uses his subtle powers of prose to ask personal questions that touch upon the larger, social realm.  “Gone” is one Crowley’s most well known and reprinted stories.  A moody, minimalist piece, it is about a woman whose partner has run away with their children on an Earth where a space ship orbits, sending peace-loving Elmer robots do housework and common chores.  A bizarre story for the robot premise, it nevertheless manages to draw strong yet mysterious emotional resonance through the portrayal of the woman’s life.  Proving flash fiction is also in Crowley’s bag of tricks, “In the Tom Mix Museum” is shows the power of excellent writing technique in the process of relaying a vignette of a person’s visit to the museum.  More happening in its three pages than some writers can pack into a story ten times as long, the “story” is interesting as a specimen and as fiction.  What I would call a one-off conceit, “And Go Like This” takes a Buckminster Fuller quote and runs with it.  The entire population of the world migrates to New York City, and answers the question, once there, what to do?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Review of Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? by Robert Sheckley



Stop, stop right here.  Don’t bother with this review.  Just go read a Robert Sheckley novel or collection.  Unless your expectations are so narrow as to want formulaic genre material, the man’s writing cannot disappoint.  The wit, the humor, the wrestling with human nature, all in classic science fictional settings and situations, is inimitable.  Sheckley seeming to forever hover on the fringes of reader awareness, his 1972 collection Can You Feel Anything When I Do This? is as good a place as any to jump right in, wallow in the goodness, and become aware.

Humorous speculation on the nature of machine intelligence, the title story opens the collection.  About an ordinary housewife who one day receives a mail-order robot vacuum cleaner, Sheckley’s keen sense of humor tells a funny ‘romance’ that makes the reader question the possibilities of AI.  An absolutely hilarious story that channels the style of Jack Vance in dialogue but with Sheckley’s cosmopolitan side informing the backstory and plot movement, “Cordle to Onion to Carrot” tells of an easily bullied man who finds his stride among stronger men after imbibing some ‘wine of the gods’.  Just hilarious.  Going from borderline outrageous to quite subdued, “The Petrified World” tells of a man concerned about his dreams.  Visiting a psychologist, his metaphysical questions are unanswerable, save for a procedure that gives him an entirely new perspective on life.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Review of Spindrift by Allen Steele



Allen Steele’s Coyote trilogy was something of a mild surprise for me.  It is not the most literary of science fiction, but that was not Steele’s aim.  Presenting a reasonable scenario wherein humanity colonizes another planet with a cast of characters that hover between 2D and 3D experiencing drama that was not off the charts, it makes for enjoyable enough reading within the hard/soft sf field.  The canvas of the trilogy broad enough to accommodate a variety of spinoffs and even outright continuation of the main storyline, it was likely to no one’s surprise that in 2007 Steele published another novel in the Coyote universe, Spindrift.

A frame story, Spindrift opens with three astronauts, Theodore Harker, Emily Collins, and Jared Ramirez, returning unexpectedly to Earth in a strange space vessel after having disappeared fifty years ago on a space mission nobody knew the fate of.  The mystery of the fifty-year gap explained in the main story, things begin with the USS Galileo, lead by an incompetent but well connected captain, setting off to investigate a strange alien signal eminating from a BDO, nicknamed Spindrift, in a nearby galaxy.  A big secret discovered by Harker, Collins, and Ramirez en route to the BDO—a secret the captain would rather the crew have not known, the open-minded nature of the trip takes a hit, and comes full face upon arrival at Spindrift.  Events spiraling out of control, the mystery of the BDO is answered even as the veil of sentient life in the universe is peeled back.

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.