Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Before turning to the topic at hand, a brief digression (that will end up being somewhat relevant to the review itself, so bear with me here.)  I, along with who knows how many other people, am the owner of a Kindle.  As regular Kindle users know, it recently became possible to use the Kindle to check out library books, joining the modern ranks of e-readers.  My local library is pretty on the ball with technology and has access to Overdrive, which is the publisher-required middleman for e-book content.

You may be thinking that this is how I obtained my reading copy of Ready Player One, and that is correct.  But I’m also really wondering about my own personal moral standing and the future of the library.  As it happens, you can only check out three Kindle titles at a time – you also can’t forget to return it, since the book simply evaporates after your time is up.  Also, the library has to buy an e-book license for each digital copy, so if the library only has one license then only one person at a time is allowed to have access to the e-book.  If you want you can put yourself on a hold list.  And some publishers have requirements that the library must re-purchase the license after the book has been checked out a certain number of times (HarperCollins earlier this year set the number at 26, I don’t know if they ever backed down on that or not.)  Librarians obviously hate the idea that they have to continuously shell out money for a digital book which has a marginal cost of zero and isn’t suffering the degradation that a real book will if it ends up in the wrong place such as anywhere in the vicinity of a toddler.

So let’s recap here – we’ve got the technology to instantly magic the complete text of any book in existence to anyone who’s got a computer or an e-reader and to do this with no additional cost, and yet the process sucks.  The publishers are intent on making this a more painful and less pleasant prospect than physically going to the library and more expensive to the library than actually buying a physical copy of a real book.  Which means that the future is less about awesome technology than about the laws, regulations and social norms that constrain everyone’s use of that technology.  And then there’s people like me which are lending credibility to this asinine system by participating in it, which probably means that despite all my complaints I’m still part of the problem.


Ready Player One is a book about nostalgia for nerd culture of the 1980s.  Everything else about it is what you would call an Excuse Plot, such as when you’re watching a movie and the cable repairman turns out to be played by Karl Hungus, and then you know that cable repair is probably not going to be a critical plot element exactly.  So in evaluating this book you have to keep in mind that every single thing that happens in this book is designed around composing cool setpieces of vintage nerd references, and everything else is pretty secondary to that.  This could be done in a truly terrible and/or cloying matter, at which point this book would be complete crap, which I fortunately report is not the case.  But at the same time I’m not totally sold on it either.

Now, I was a nerd in the 1980s, although I think I’m maybe 5-7 years too young to really be the right-on-target demographic here because I was also teething and learning the alphabet during a lot of that period.  (Although my first video game was a Space Invaders clone for the Kaypro II).  I was really a nerd of the 1990s if you count the ability to do reasonably independent stuff.  Why waste a paragraph on my own circumstances when describing someone else’s book?  Simple, any analysis of nostalgia is going to be self directed because that’s the whole point of it.  If you’re going to reference, say, The Legend of Zelda for the original Nintendo, then the only reason that anyone would care is their own experience playing that game.  Maybe you remember your friends taunting you because you kept getting killed by an Octorok, or the hassle involved in getting down into the seventh dungeon, or endless arguments over A Link to the Past or whatever.  If you’ve never played any of those games and don’t have any personal experience with them then a reference/homage to them isn’t going to give you any warm fuzzies and might even be incomprehensible.

The action in the novel revolves around, essentially, treasure hunting, since the creator of OASIS has died and left his $240 billion fortune (still the greatest personal collection of wealth in the 2040s, take that, future inflation) to the person who can complete his online Easter egg hunt.  What is OASIS, you ask?  Something of a combination of Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse from Snow Crash, a little bit of World of Warcraft, some Facebook, and a few elements of blazing a butterball-sized crack rock.  Everyone’s on OASIS pretty much all the time, and why not?  The world has hit peak oil, so there’s constant wars, riots, global climate change, dogs and cats living together, etc.  So it’s a pretty crappy time to be alive.

Enter our hero, Wade Watts, alliteratively named by his father who died while looting a convenience store, and raised by a single mom in an Oklahoma trailer park.  And who is obsessed with nerd culture of the 1980s because that’s what the creator of OASIS was into, so that’s the secret to finding the clues to the Easter egg.

Now I mostly like Wade, he’s a pretty good portrayal of what someone like this would actually be like.  He’s not physically intimidating and he’s smart, but in a pop-culture and game-centric sort of way.  So he’s not going to be winning any fights or turning heads at the Sorbonne.  Nonetheless I’ve known some dudes like this, he’s basically a decent sort and I didn’t mind spending time with him.

Do you think there is any chance that you’re going to get through this book and find out that Wade doesn’t manage to outwit, out-game and out-trivia the murderous cabal that’s also after the prize and become the world’s richest man, and that he won’t get the girl?  I’m sure there’s someone out there who’s never read a book or seen a movie about an underdog before and it will come as a surprise to that person.  Other than that, you basically know what’s coming, and there’s a bunch of really fun nerd references in there.

I liked it.  It was pretty good.

Now, having praised this book, let me go ahead and bury it.  Remember all that business at the beginning about Kindle library loaning?  Wade learned to read and write through OASIS since every kid is apparently allowed free access to all the public libraries and Sesame Street.  And all through this, in the back of my head, I was thinking – that would certainly be cool, but really?  The book publishers are going to allow unlimited access to all their books and CTW is going to just let everyone spend unlimited time with Elmo without a royalty?  For that matter, did AT&T and Verizon not try to strangle OASIS’ bandwidth, charge extra fees, demand a cut of the action?  Did the movie studios and television networks go gentle into that good night?

I’m not going to shill for Paolo Bacigalupi’s vision of the future, but his harrowing post-peak oil collapse stories and novels paint, I think, a better version of what that crisis might be like.  I don’t really think that in the face of what’s going on in this story that keeping the power on to a trailer park in Oklahoma would really be a big focus of anyone in power’s priorities.  I felt that there’s a much greater chance that all his potential would go to waste – well, even more so.

So, as much as I wanted to get into this book, I kept feeling a huge tension between the story that was going on and the fairly well done setting and backstory.  It appeared to me that what I was being told about the world made all the events at best extremely unlikely, probably impossible, and that mismatch made the whole thing feel even more artificial than something dealing with the 80s should be.  Nonetheless, this is a pretty interesting first novel and I’m interested to see if Cline can get something in better focus with the next one.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Trouble is my Business by Raymond Chandler

I get unaccountable pleasure from reading crime and detective novels, especially those in the prewar era and extending into the 1950s.  I’m sure that a lot of this is selection bias, since anything that’s going to be available at all these days will have stood the test of time and be way better than most of the pulp fiction written in the actual era.  Anyway, Raymond Chandler is one of my favorites, but his work is inexplicably difficult to find.  I’ve been searching the used book stores for years trying to find the twelve-story version of this book, since there are two different collections; one contains twelve short stories, the other just four.  But I had to settle for the four story version, because that’s what I could find. 

The Philip Marlowe contained within these stories is a little different than the character that we know and love from Chandler’s novels, and well he should be, since these stories were originally written with other detectives in mind and then re-edited to put Marlowe’s name in there after the novels became hits.  But Chandler was writing about an archetype and the Marlowe novels themselves vary in quality immensely (Playback, for instance, is really not very good), so these could just as well have been written for Marlowe originally.  Why not?

Perhaps the pleasure I get from reading these comes from the slightly through-the-looking-glass milieu that is contained there.  Everyone’s speaking English and it’s allegedly America but it’s really not the same place we live in today.  You can get a beer at a drive through window and even a street bum is wearing a suit, there’s everyday casual racism but everyone’s surprisingly polite and eloquent about everything.  For instance, suppose you’re coming back from a business meeting and get jumped by two armed gunmen in your apartment.  Could happen to anyone, I guess.  And since you’re in something of a bad mood and a little drunk you decide to take them on anyway and beat them up.  Afterwards the ringleader gives a little explanation and a compliment, noting that you’ve got “nice arm action there, pal.  I will say that for you.”

I’m pretty sure in all times and places a real-life lowlife thug would throw in some cursing there as well, no matter how pretty your swing is.

The portrayal of the cops is pretty astounding too.  They’re not all corrupt or on the make – although some are – but it’s pretty typical for them to manhandle every perp after every arrest, just on principle.  They also smack around anyone who is suspicious, looks suspicious, or may become suspicious in the future.  Or anyone who wise talks, which is everyone.  No one’s surprised at being threatened with violence or death, at learning of the deaths of their associates, of being beaten into unconsciousness.  Just give a stoic or smartass remark and go on.

I won’t lie, this is great stuff, and Chandler does it better than anyone.  Except maybe Dashiell Hammett.

And it’s good that the writing and atmosphere is so excellent, because, with all due respect to Marlowe, he’s a terrible detective and no one should read these stories for the mystery.  Marlowe almost never has to do any actual detective work since everyone comes to him.  Seriously, it usually pans out that he doesn’t have a clue where to begin until some shadowy thugs come to try and menace him, and this gives him the information that he needs to find the next thug, and so on up the chain.  A word of advice to any villains who discover that Philip Marlowe’s on your tail – do nothing.  He’ll never find you.  And if he does suspect you, then the mere fact that you haven’t hired some goons to hit him in the head with a blackjack and dump him in a ditch somewhere will throw suspicion off you.  I think Chandler did realize that he tended to abuse these sorts of situations, so he tried to make the confrontations as exciting as possible; he also throws in a couple of deadpan internal critiques as to why he even bothers carrying a gun, since everyone takes it off him and beats him up anyway.  Although someone who had sustained as many blows to the head as Marlowe did might not be capable of much abstract reasoning.  Just saying.  (There's also a famous story that while filming the movie version of The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart asked the director who had killed one of the victims, and the director contacted Chandler, who didn't know either - so definitely an author who didn't get little things like that get in the way of the plot.)

Marlowe’s a great character because he’s such a pain in the ass.  There are plenty of times when, if he would just leave well enough alone, he could get out of a situation with no liability, no bruises, and occasionally some money as well.  He doesn’t have a commitment to justice in the abstract and is just as likely to help cover up a murder as bring a murderer in, so that’s not it – he just absolutely hates to not have a situation resolved to his satisfaction.  Also he reads poetry and plays chess, that’s a fighting man I can get behind.  But what exactly drives him is never really gone into or explained, you just have to puzzle it out from his actions, which are infuriatingly contradictory sometimes, as he’s just as likely to perform some sort of altruistic act as to use sarcasm or violence.

In possibly the best of the four stories, “Red Wind”, Marlowe is drinking in a cheap bar when a man walks in, looking for a woman.  No one’s seen her, but a drunk gets up and shoots the man dead, then leaves.  Soon, both the woman who was being sought and the shooter end up at Marlowe’s apartment, the woman to ask for help and the shooter to eliminate the witness (see what I said about leaving well enough alone?)  This one’s a little unusual since Marlowe, for once, wasn’t looking for trouble, and he ends up doing something pretty nice for no particular reason other than it is a good thing to do.  For some reason, I enjoyed that best of all.  “Goldfish” was the weakest of the four in my opinion, it felt the least like Marlowe and was somewhat more of a gimmick than you usually see in Chandler’s work.  The other two are pretty solid and have a lot of double-crossing and violence in the best pulp tradition.

I still don’t know what makes Marlowe tick and I certainly wouldn’t want to live in his world, but I did enjoy this collection.  When your greatest complaint about a story collection is that you want eight more stories, that’s a good use of your entertainment dollar.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

I consider it inexcusable that as big of a Blade Runner fan as I am, that I’d never gotten around to reading this.  Consider it my love-hate affair with Philip K. Dick.  I love almost all his short stories, but I haven’t really liked many of his novels, or at least not very much.  I know, everyone likes The Man in the High Castle, but I wasn’t fond of it; I didn’t really like Dr. Bloodmoney, I found VALIS too strange even for me, and although I did enjoy A Scanner Darkly and thought We Can Build You was OK, I decided to move on to other things at that point.  Just saying I gave it a stab is all.  Nonetheless, I finally picked this one up and was pleasantly surprised if not entirely won over – and it’s pretty short too, so there you have it.

It’s probably not entirely reasonable to bring up points of comparison to Blade Runner, because these are pretty obviously different takes on the material.  The core of the story is the same, you’ve got Rick Deckard, bounty hunter of androids, who aren’t allowed to be on Earth; they’re used as manual labor, soldiers and sex slaves on offworld colonies, but that’s about all the book and movie have in common besides the character names and job titles.  The novel’s setting is explicitly post-apocalyptic, not just noir; there’s not really a lot of people left on Earth, and many of the ones who are left are “chickenheads”, folks who have had exposure to fallout and have suffered mental/physical impairment as a result.  Most of the best and brightest have gone offworld or died in the war.  It’s implied that the ones who stayed and are more or less of normal capacity have pretty bad emotional issues.  And you get a touch of that typical Dick surrealism in that all the men walk around wearing designer lead codpieces, although if there was really that much residual radiation that this was advisable then that probably wouldn’t be the first thing I’d want to protect anyway (although putting one on Harrison Ford might have been pretty funny, I guess they didn’t have one in the prop department or something).  Another effect is that most of the non-human life on Earth has died, so having any sort of real animal is a status symbol and harming one is deeply shocking.

The action opens on Deckard as he’s having something of an argument with his wife, who is using something called a “mood organ” to give herself periods of depression and anxiety.  I say something of an argument because they’re both using the mood-altering device to affect their mental states; Deckard at first thinks about dialing up his anger on the device but thinks better of it when his wife threatens to retaliate, so they both eventually just dial it down and he goes to work.  I get it, this bounty hunter of human-like machines is at the mercy of emotions he gets from an external source.  Kind of heavy handed, although handled in a pretty funny manner.  There’s also the issue of Mercerism, which is a quasi-religious belief system that allows the user to be with Mercer as he gets killed by an angry mob, and an ongoing and unresolved plot about a somewhat sinister media personality who appears to make more programming per day than there are hours in the day.

Deckard may be a bounty hunter but in the story the androids are actually pretty sociopathic.  They aren’t capable of emotional response to the suffering of others and that’s the basis of the test that can detect them.  However, one of the newer models, the Nexus 6, does appear to be able to have at least some regard for other androids, since one of them seduces Deckard and tries to get him to stop bounty hunting.  Which he doesn’t.  And this doesn’t seem all that bad because although the androids that he’s after haven’t exactly done anything wrong, they’re also pretty unpleasant, since they basically trick a lonely chickenhead into giving them shelter and don’t think much about tormenting the weak.  This Roy Baty isn’t a tragic character, and his desires don’t drive the plot.  He’s basically just a jerk.  In a way this is too bad, because I thought Dick might be trying to mirror human bounty hunters who have regard for biological life but kill synthetic life without remorse and question whether we have the right to judge androids as sociopaths, but in fact the androids really don't seem to be very pleasant at all.

I didn’t love this book.  It has a couple of fundamental problems in my opinion, one of which is that Dick’s real strength as an author is in mind-bending prose and weirdness, not action; so when there are action sequences they tend to fall flat as Deckard just shoots androids and kills them.  This is also a rare case in which I think that the book should have been longer, as its size makes some of the plot threads terminate abruptly.  One of the stronger scenes is when Deckard finds himself in a police station he didn’t know existed which turns out to be staffed by androids, and this plot basically just drops, and the same is true of some of the other subplots like Mercer.

However, I did like it more than I thought I would, primarily because of the dark humor and the matter-of-factness of the plot.  Dick was on his game here and creating nice point-counterpoints on what it means to be human exactly, which was his major area of expertise.  I’d say that the characters were flat, but that’s the point, I think.  Anyway, fairly short and enjoyable, so it’s worth a look.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Cold Commands by Richard K. Morgan

Sorry I’ve been so late with the updates; had some sort of plague and then had to take care of my plagued family, and that plus getting my work in does tend to take time.  Anyway, this will contain some spoilers for The Steel Remains, as this is a sequel.

Richard K. Morgan, British SF author, hardly needs an introduction.  Since jumping onto the scene with Altered Carbon in 2002 he’s been churning out books of better than average quality at an impressive rate.  Altered Carbon plus its two sequels is one of my all-time favorite SF series, and although awards bodies were sort of stingy to them I think they’ll be strong contenders for lasting the test of time.

If you’ve never read them, the Altered Carbon trilogy deals with the exploits of Takeshi Kovacs, a memetically-programmed ex super soldier turned (variously) private eye, mercenary, and freelance vigilante who is disenchanted with his government and tries to act by his own morality in a world full of corruption and double dealing.  Morgan’s other works explore similar themes; Market Forces discusses a business executive who happens to have to fight other executives to death while immersed in a world full of corruption and double dealing, and Black Man (titled Thirteen in the US) deals with a genetically modified super soldier who is disenchanted with his government and tries to act by his own morality, etc.  I guess he’s sticking to what works for him.  At any rate, the Altered Carbon trilogy achieves greatness and the other two aren’t exactly bad, although frankly I didn’t like Market Forces all that much and thought that the first three quarters of Black Man was pretty mediocre before picking up substantially toward the end.

The Steel Remains, which came out a couple of years ago, was the first book of a new trilogy entitled A Land Fit For Heroes which is something of a departure for Morgan.  Okay, as a matter of fact the main character Ringil is a famous ex-soldier turned disenchanted veteran who tries to act by his own morality in a world full of corruption and double dealing.  Nonetheless.  Unlike Morgan’s previous works this one is straight fantasy, although it may take place on a far future Earth (possibly even in the same universe as Altered Carbon; there's a 'god' by the name of 'Dakovash') and its magic is indistinguishable from technology that the characters don’t fully understand.  Ringil makes a pretty interesting character.   He is a homosexual but lives in an incredibly repressive culture.  His father is an important man and is thus able to save a teenage Ringil from suffering horrific execution alongside his lover when they’re caught, although as one might expect this makes their relationship pretty spotty after that, the father thinking that Ringil’s ungrateful and Ringil believing that his father probably could have done something to save both of them.  Ringil’s also got the feeling that he personally is a coward and should have taken the same punishment, although he’s practical enough to realize that it really wouldn’t have made much difference if he had.  So with this combination of aggression and self-loathing it makes sense that he volunteered to go to war when one broke out (with either monsters or aliens, it’s not entirely clear), and he turned out to be enough of a survivor to become quite good at it indeed.

This is all in the backstory, though, since the real events of that novel open with Ringil slowly going to seed in a backwater town where they don’t ask many questions about his sexuality, drinking too much, telling war stories, and lowering his standards.  Then his mother asks him to rescue one of his cousins from slavers, which he does, and inadvertently discovers that this is connected to a proposed invasion of the world by what are essentially elves, portrayed in Pratchett style as psychopathic fashionistas.   Ringil enters a torrid affair with one and then stops the invasion anyway, along with the help of some old war buddies of his.

The friends are pretty interesting but sort of woefully underused in The Steel Remains.  One, Egar, is essentially a stereotypical barbarian, who decided that hanging out on the steppes in a yurt wasn’t really all there was to life and jumped at the change when he heard that you could make lots of money as a mercenary in the big city.  This actually worked out well for him, and then he parlayed all the cash and experience into becoming the chief of his tribe, although mostly this meant that he spent his time sleeping with stupid young women, since he basically caught too much sophistication to truly go home but never really got all that civilized.  He was pretty interesting and didn’t get enough screen time.  The other friend, Archeth Indamaninarmal (and doesn’t spell check love that) is half-human, half-Kiriath (sort of dwarves/technomages/etc. and otherwise absent), a lesbian, and names her throwing knives.  Also pretty cool and got a little more screen time than Egar, mostly doing political-type stuff but also stabbing people occasionally.

I mentioned in my last review that the book required previous knowledge of the series, and you can double down on that here.  Morgan throws you right into it and God help you if you don’t remember everything that happened in the previous one.  I recalled most of the big details, but some of it I just had to say, okay, there was probably a reason why Ringil wanted to get revenge against that particular person, I just can’t remember what it was.

I was prepared to like this book a lot since I was hoping that it would fulfill the promises made by the first volume, which actually created a fairly interesting venue for the surprisingly well-developed characters and then just didn’t ever quite catch fire for me.  So I thought that maybe the second volume would really hit it out of the park and make up for the meh feeling I had about the first one.  Sadly, no.  Morgan's writing is compelling, there’s a lot that should be going on here, and yet it failed to connect once again.

This may have something to do with being the middle book of a trilogy, since there’s a lot more setup than resolution here, and then you end up reading a lot of backstory about characters you didn’t remember all that well to begin with and then they don’t get around to having the promised adventure.  This is too bad, since the promised adventure sounds pretty cool.  It’s the elves again, and they may be rallying back to the world at the side of an undead sorcerer on a mysterious quasi-real-disappearing island.  Archeth spends a lot of time getting an expedition fitted out to this island but they never actually get around to going, there’s a bit of sidetracking and the narrative has to get all the three Musketeers back together again, throw in a few daring escapes, couple of brutal killings, etc.

It’s intense, to almost a ludicrous extent.  Morgan does excel in writing action, but this gets turned up to eleven here in scenes of violence, sex, violent sex and sexual violence.  I’m neither faint hearted nor squeamish (for a good cause, anyway), and yet the frequent murders, tortures, executions, rapings and desecrations get to be excessive after a while.  In one sense I get it, this is a response by Morgan (and other folks like George R.R. Martin) to attempt to show the dark sides of fantasy staple cultures which get conveniently left out by traditional fantasy literature; but done to this extent you wonder how there could even be anyone left in the whole world after six months of this Grand Guignol.  It also makes it really, really hard to root for anyone at all.  Archeth’s people apparently felt that one particular empire was the best hope for civilization on whatever planet this takes place on, but the Emperor is a real jackhole and likes to feed his political opponents to carnivorous octopuses.  Ringil starts the book fighting against slavery, but he’s pretty pathetic at actually saving anyone and lets his mercenary band commit some pretty horrible atrocities.  You get the sense that the world might actually be better off if the elves did take over, although they are also pretty free with the war crimes and genocide.

The two characters of Archeth and Egar do get more page time in this one.  Egar gets a couple of action scenes but primarily exists to get into trouble.  I still kind of like him, it’s too bad.  Archeth continues to be interesting and gets to do a lot more this time.  She’s only half human and is a couple of hundred years old at this point, it gives her a very unique perspective and she also gets to deal with the other most interesting characters, a trio of artificial intelligences made by her people who have their own agendas and also appear to know what’s going on.

At least someone does, since a lot of the action takes place in the Grey Places, where everything is a little wonky and other potential realities are always right next door.  Ringil spent some time there in the previous novel (it’s where the elves hang out, and it’s what makes them so screwy) and plenty more in this one.  There was a prophecy in the first one which suggested that Ringil himself might be some sort of embryonic Dark Lord in the making – an interesting enough conceit – and in this one he appears to be rocking some sorcery and periodically runs across supernatural beings who make some gnomic statements and move on.  I still don’t really know what the deal is here and I feel that this isn’t really acceptable at this point in a trilogy.

So, I can’t really recommend that anyone run out and get this one.  Still, it’s very well written and contains some compelling setpieces, so I’m not really that down on it either.  The third volume may very well pay for all, but at this point I’d suggesting waiting to see before reading the first two.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Aloha from Hell by Richard Kadrey

There’s a line from a Roger Ebert review that I read once that’s always stayed with me – I believe that it was from a review of Spice World – stating that a particular song was “absolutely perfect without actually being any good”.  So, not as much damning with faint praise as it is stabbing-with-a-broken-beer-bottle of faint praise.  I’m not trying to insult Aloha from Hell here, so take that in the spirit in which it is intended – this book is pretty lightweight, and you’re not going to find it on any Great Literature lists, but it’s pretty damn fun.

I don’t know a lot about Richard Kadrey other than what’s on his author’s blurb at the back of the book, and based on his picture he looks like he could walk into some scary bar, start a fight, and beat the asses of a whole bunch of people.  I mention that because this seems to be something of a theme in his work, and perhaps it’s from personal experience.  I don’t know, maybe he’s really into breeding rare orchids and tea ceremonies or something, but he just looks like a pretty tough guy, and they do say to write about what you know.

I doubt, though, that Kadrey was ever personally involved in a ring of magicians led by a sociopath who betrayed him and sent him down bodily into Hell, where he was forced for eleven years to work as an arena pit fighter, before escaping and returning to Earth for revenge.  This is the story of Sandman Slim, which followed the adventures of one James “Sandman Slim” Stark as he proceeded to shoot, beat, stab, and explode everyone who got between him and sweet, sweet vengeance.  Then in the sequel, Kill the Dead, Sandman Slim thwarts a zombie invasion of Los Angeles, again by shooting, beating, stabbing, magicking, etc.  Aloha From Hell is the third volume of this urban fantasy series, and if you read the foregoing paragraph you can pretty accurately tell what this one’s going to contain (hint:  within the first couple of chapters Slim kills a demon while committing a burglary, jumps out a window to escape and then has rough sex with a cute female monster following a brief date at a chicken and waffle restaurant.)

Now at this point, you’re probably thinking one of three things:  1) that sounds pretty awesome; 2) that sounds pretty silly; 3) that sounds pretty silly and yet also kind of awesome.  If you’re in the first category, then go out and get these right away, you won’t regret it.  If you’re in the second, then you’re not going to miss a huge cultural touchstone here, so go back to making margin notes in The Corrections with head held high.  If you’re like me and in the third category, then you’ll probably enjoy this, although you may be embarrassed to admit it if you haven’t taken an oath like I have to blog about whatever it is you read.

For whatever reason, I hadn’t really read much fantasy literature up until the past several years, and although I know that the urban fantasy genre is increasingly popular, I haven’t really read all that much of it either.  I am a big fan of Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels, though, and the reason I checked out Sandman Slim in the first place is that it’s been a while since there’s been one of those.  To compare these to another genre I’m familiar with, Mike Carey is playing the part of Raymond Chandler writing about a private detective with a complex inner life, while Kadrey is channeling Mickey Spillane and writing about an angry guy who goes around breaking things.

I think Kadrey’s a pretty good writer, though, and I certainly tore right through this book.  If you’re dealing with this kind of setup, e.g., gods, demons, fallen angels, Hell, etc., then you have to put some thought into universe construction as well.  What does it mean to fight a demon, for instance?  Under most conceptions, they’re already dead (or at least spirits, same sort of thing).  So can anyone fight Beelzebub with a riot baton and a Saturday night special?  For that matter, is it possible for some junkie to get lucky and take out the Lord of Hosts behind a liquor store with a butterfly knife one dark evening?  What does it mean to kill a ghost?  This only becomes increasingly difficult to manage as we learn more about the cosmos; it was OK for Milton to describe the Earth as the only concern around, but when you know there are billions of galaxies containing who knows how many worlds then it doesn’t make all that much sense to have everyone be focused on this one particular planet, and somewhat odd to suggest that angels and demons really care that much about it.

Kadrey has some answers for all this, and I have to say that it increases my regard for this work significantly.  In the first instance, anyone with the right equipment can in fact take out any particular entity, but in the case of the more powerful ones then “right equipment” turns out to be pretty substantial; and in the next instance anyone who dies who’s already dead (or who was never alive in the first place) goes to Tartarus.  This is a pretty scary concept since no one’s ever come back from there – this in a series where there’s basically a revolving door in Hell and people are coming and going all the time.

In the broader sense, it turns out that this series takes place in a Gnostic universe, which is a pretty reasonable decision.  It’s a pretty big belief system to summarize in a blog post, but some of the Gnostics believed that the universe was so shoddy that it could not have been made by God, but instead was made by someone else while God wasn’t looking (some of them even believed it was the devil).  Some of the other schools of thought suggested that God did it but didn’t have the omnimax characteristics ascribed by later religions.  When Sandman Slim ends up meeting the demiurge he asks, pretty reasonably, why he was left to suffer in Hell for all that time, and the demiurge thinks they’re getting into a discussion of the problem of evil, or why human suffering is allowed.  Not so, says Slim, why did you in particular allow me in particular to have that problem?  The demiurge’s answer is pretty cool and also explains why the universe is so big.  Incidentally, it turns out that God is pretty much an asshole.  I guess that’s not much of a surprise.

Now if I were to make some critiques here, and I’m going to, I’d have to say (other than the general silliness issue) that this book isn’t particularly accessible if you haven’t already read the first two.  In terms of demon killing equipment, Slim’s equipped with a na’at, which is sort of a chain-flail-whip-sword thing, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t really understand that from this book.  Likewise the key to the Room of Thirteen Doors, the black bone knife, and the angel in his head, plus a bunch of characters who just sort of show up.  I have to admit that even though I had read the two previous books I was a little hazy about some of these people and the various artifacts, and I’ve got a good memory for stuff like this.  If you read all three together it might flow a lot better.  The pacing’s also a little bit strange, since it kicks off really strong, then spins along for a while and then kind of hits a puzzling and anticlimactic climax.  I wouldn’t say it was disappointing exactly, but it certainly wasn’t what I’d been expecting given the novel so far or the general tone.

I’m not sure if Kadrey’s planning on writing any more of these or not; he basically ties up a lot of the outstanding issues that Slim’s had since day one.  He manages to make some peace with his dead girlfriend, get some additional revenge, and obtain a new job opportunity.  Nonetheless, he does still have some living enemies and there are some pretty obvious sequel hooks.  If there are more novels in this series then they’ll be much different than the first three for reasons which will be obvious if you read it.

Anyway, I don’t want to sell this too short by any means, as Kadrey’s prose is extremely if not compulsively readable and it’s really a lot of fun, probably one of the most straight-up entertaining books I’ve read so far this year.  It’s just so unapologetically goofy that I have to approve.  If you’re looking for depth this is probably not the place, although there are some surprising character moments to be found (and a reasonable solution to the problem of evil, at that).  I think that it might not be quite as strong as Kill the Dead, my vote for the standout of this particular trilogy, but I’m up for reading more about this crazy SOB Sandman Slim and I guess that’s really about as much as you can ever expect.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett.  If you’re familiar with his thirty-eight (!) previous Discworld novels, plus other novels, TV adaptations, illustrated guides, cookbooks and other assorted creative endeavors then you already know all about him, and are probably familiar with not only his extensive body of work but also some of his recent advocacy of assisted suicide following his diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  If you’re not familiar with him then this review is probably not the place to start.  Get thee to a bookstore and come back later.

Ready?  Ok then.  If you’re like me you might be a little hesitant about picking this one up because his last two adult Discworld books were, shall we say, a little uneven.  Personally I felt like Making Money had the makings of two good books but ended up getting blended into one sort of messy one, and although Unseen Academicals was decent enough it wasn’t quite up to the standard that I’ve come to expect from Pratchett.  And I was not really keen on the idea that I’d not like it very much and then have to come here and say so; therefore I’m very happy indeed to report that this is the best Discworld book in years, although it’s certainly come a long way from its origins.

Sam Vimes is a fan favorite and probably the closest thing to an autobiographical character that exists in Pratchett’s work, being a boy from extremely humble beginnings ending up in a position of authority and wealth.  He doesn’t necessarily feel like he deserves any of that, but at the same time he knows better than anyone that the world isn’t fair, and so as long as he doesn’t try and stop the wheel of fortune he doesn’t really feel like he needs to give it all away.  This is the eighth book starring him, and as this one begins he’s headed out with his wife and son (now six, so it’s been about four years since we’ve last seem them) on vacation to their country estate.  He does get to bring Willikins, perhaps the standout character of this particular book and characterized to a somewhat surprising degree in a different manner than he’s been seen before (although it fits with his continuing arc of increasing badassitude – still, it’s a pretty big change.)

Did I mention that Lord Vetinari, Vimes’ boss and dictator of the city of Ankh-Morpork, suggested to Sibyl Vimes that it might be an ideal time to head out on vacation?  No?  Well, if you’ve read any of the previous City Watch books, you know that Vetinari’s suggestion means it’s on.  Not that Vimes knows it yet.

The last couple of Discworld books suffered from a case of too much Vetinari.  He’s best used sitting in his office being creepily omniscient and solving problems in his own unique way, which consists either of 1) throwing someone into a situation where the problem gets solved without Vetinari having to do anything personally; or 2) throwing someone into a situation where the problem gets thrown into sharp relief and causes everyone to beg Vetinari to do what he already wanted to do anyway.  After all, Vetinari knows that the secret to being a successful dictator is not to throw his weight around too much or at least not to do it pre-emptively.  And, of course, one of his favorite persons to use as a problem solver is Sam Vimes.  Vetinari is great here in his scenes which bookend the action, and seems like himself again, especially when marking a man for death or complaining about the crossword puzzle editor.  This is the Vetinari we have come to know and . . . er, fear, actually, I guess.

In this book you know right off the bat that Vetinari wants to have something done about the goblin problem – wait, you didn’t know there was a goblin problem on the Discworld?  All the other books which mentioned vampires, werewolves, dwarfs, trolls, gnolls, Igors, demons, Hivers, orcs, gargoyles, pictsies, gnomes, elves, golems, dragons, banshees, zombies, dryads, anthropomorphic holidays, the Grim Reaper and the boogeyman didn’t prepare you for the goblin problem?  Well, they’ve been here all this time and everyone hates them, apparently.  For that matter they hate themselves, since their religion says that they did something wrong long ago and deserve all the bad stuff that happens to them.  Maybe that’s why they are such unfortunate wretches.  Nonetheless, if you want justice everyone knows you can ask Sam Vimes, since although he'll enforce unpopular or unfair laws he'll at least enforce them against everyone.  No privilege, i.e. private law, allowed in Vimes' world.  (That could even be the motto of the Watch if it weren't already "Make My Day, Punk".)

And at this point you’re probably thinking, wait, haven’t we seen this one before, where Vimes manages to save the day and improve the lot of some ethnic group or species, like the golems in Feet of Clay or the Klatchians in Jingo, or everyone besides the fascist werewolves in The Fifth Elephant or putting an end to the dwarf/troll war in Thud!?  And if you are thinking this then you are right.  Snuff doesn’t tread any particular new ground, but although it may only tread in familiar places they're at least of good quality and entertaining enough.

Anyway, Vimes doesn’t think much of vacation but he tries to make the best of it, becoming somewhat cheered up when he discovers traces of low-grade criminality all around in the allegedly bucolic surroundings.  And he only becomes happier when people start trying to tell him there’s nothing for him to do there.  If the guilty flee when no man pursues, Vimes’ line of thought is that someone doing a runner must be guilty of something.  And since everyone knows that Vimes doesn’t take vacations (which in this case he did) they assume that he must be there to dig up their skeletons (which he isn’t) and that they are in a lot of trouble (which they are).  Mixed in with Vimes’ adventures are a couple of brief scenes back at the Watch House in Ankh-Morpork, where the officers who stayed at home naturally come across elements of a crime that intersects with what Vimes is doing.  Surprisingly, the officer who gets the most page time is Wee Mad Arthur, who has apparently come back to work since finding out about his heritage in I Shall Wear Midnight and has a few new skills these days.

Worth a mention at this point is that although Snuff is very entertaining, it isn’t all that funny, at least not laugh-out-loud funny.  There are some very nice comedic setpieces here and there, including a pretty amusing Die Hard reference (and a surprisingly explicit view of the sexual fantasies of a dwarf), but on the whole this book continues a trend that I’ve noticed in many of Pratchett’s later works to be a lot more true to life in unpleasant ways.  Not that bad things haven’t always happened in Discworld, mind you, but in real life you’re not likely to be killed by a dragon or a pack of werewolves unless you live in a really bad neighborhood.  However, groups of undesirables living (and, occasionally, dying) at the sufferance of their neighbors?  Slavery and drug trafficking?  Domestic abuse?  All pretty plausible.

The mystery at the heart of Snuff isn’t all that mysterious, as it becomes quickly apparent what’s going on and who is responsible for it.  I was a little surprised, in fact, that there wasn’t more to it; in previous adventures Vimes has stopped coups and wars, toppled countries and shaken the foundation of religions.  In this case he’s up against a bunch of stuck-up provincials and a tawdry criminal arrangement that’s only in it for the money.  But in that sense he’s in his element, because he figures if he’s expected to come down hard on a petty thief then he’ll come down like an entire forest on a man of privilege who decides to steal.  Also somewhat surprisingly the actual ringleader of the plot is referenced but never actually seen, and even the stock character of the psychopathic hired enforcer doesn’t really have that much of a role (however, he’s appropriately villainous).  Pratchett basically just skims over the generalities of the criminal plot here, the reader is left to infer most of the details and a surprising amount of the responsibility on their own.  As it happens Vimes can take care of most of these jokers pretty easily, even when there’s an angry mob with their own lawyer; the really serious conflicts come from nature and from inside himself.

Vimes has always been fighting against his impulses to an extent, and that’s on full display here.  The title of the book has at least three meanings that I can see; Vimes of course is a snuff user and tobacco is otherwise significant to the plot, and naturally there’s a murder in here somewhere.  But there’s also Vimes’ lingering worries that he’s not doing things to an adequate standard.  In his last appearance Vimes was possessed or at least inhabited by a spirit of vengeance, and as it happens it may be mostly gone but it hasn’t truly gone away, and it offers to help him out a couple of times here.  Vimes is torn by this; it may provide him with quicker convictions but is it perjury to rely on the testimony of a demon?  Is it really even real or just the reflection of his own darker nature?  Vimes has always been worried that he’s actually a bad person, and he manages to channel that fear into just arresting people and not giving them the fates they deserve.  Nonetheless, as he gets older he’s finding it harder and harder to restrain himself, and the demonic possession thing doesn’t help.  Not to mention that he’s finally starting to show his age and can’t always rely on winning the hand-to-hand – or rather, brass-knuckle to kneecap or groin – fights that he inevitably winds up in with criminals who are, after all, only getting younger and younger.

Much of this theme – what separates a man like Sam Vimes from a certain type of criminal – was previously explored in Night Watch, which very well may be Pratchett’s single best work.  And I have to say that Snuff isn’t as good as that, and may give the reader a sense of déjà vu.  But since the references are being made to some pretty great books I don’t mind going back over it again.  Sir Terry’s still got it, and I hope he’s got quite a few more like this in him.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Everything is Going to Kill Everybody by Robert Brockway

The title of this one is pretty self-explanatory; it’s an examination of a bunch of various ways that everyone on Earth could get killed one day.  Or over the course of a few days to a week or so, in some cases.  It’s not really a survival manual, either, since if any of these things happen then we’re all pretty screwed.

I’m an occasional reader and a fan of Brockway’s articles over there (including his essay on why writing this book was such a pain in the ass), so I was prepared to really enjoy this.  Unfortunately, I felt that it fell into an unfortunate valley between the peaks of Funny and Well-Researched, where either approach could have worked well but somehow it just didn’t connect.  Perhaps that’s an intrinsic problem when you’re trying to write a humorous non-fiction novel about doomsday scenarios, but having not really read anything similar I can’t say for sure.

When you’re dealing with subject matter like this, a little gallows humor is to be expected, so the approach probably works best in some of the chapters dealing with human activities.  There’s the story of the Soviet officer who decided that five recorded ICBM launches were a system error and held off launching a retaliatory strike, only to get fired afterward; or the tale of how a bioengineering firm failed to perform a test of root bacteria in non-sterile soil and nearly destroyed all the Earth’s plants.  These stories are engaging and fit well with the style of humor you’d probably anticipate, talking about everyone’s giant balls and so on, and were actually pretty funny.  The humor doesn’t really work quite as well with non-human risks, since nature doesn’t have a mind to care about us with or any balls to compliment and/or mock.  I guess you could make it funny, but it didn’t work for me here, sad to say.

Where I think this book really didn’t come through for me was its failure to quantify risks.  Some of these things are way more likely than others; I’m sure, for instance, that there will be a supervolcano event or asteroid strike at some point, which would be difficult to deal with; but at the same time it’s not entirely clear that a magnetic pole shift would have any negative effects at all, and some of the other scenarios might not even be possible at all, such as Grey Goo.  I realize this isn’t a textbook and I’m not an expert, but there would appear to be serious debate around some of these proposed scenarios.  Perhaps I’m a little pedantic in that regard but I find it hard to enjoy a nonfiction work when it’s obvious that there’s other information out there on the subject that might be very significant to know.  Better citations would have helped here, I think, and some of the chapters were woefully short.

Most importantly for a humor book, a lot of the jokes were very broad and occasionally forced, when I was hoping for some laugh-out-loud moments and didn’t get them.

In its favor I never wondered why I was still reading it or anything like that.  So even though this wasn’t my favorite there’s still a lot of potential here, and I’d be interested to see if Brockway could maybe focus his next one a little tighter and raise his game.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Back to my usual genre of choice this time with The Shockwave Rider, a reasonably enjoyable and somewhat eerily prescient view of life in the Internet age, given that it was written in 1975.  I haven’t read a lot of John Brunner’s work, although he was extremely prolific and won numerous awards his work is somewhat erratic as to whether it’s in print or not.  He’s perhaps known best for his Hugo-winning novel Stand on Zanzibar, and for his themes of environmental degradation, personal isolation, and dystopian politics.

The Shockwave Rider was apparently the source of the phrase “worm”, in the sense of a self-replicating computer program.  This may be the earliest novel that I’ve ever seen which goes deeply into the implications of a global Internet type computer network, although this being the 1970s it’s run mostly on wires through the phone network and computers are big monstrous things.  A lot of the elements are there though, since there’s a lot of databanks that have dirt on everyone and there’s advantage to be had in knowing something that other people don’t.

The title is a reference to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, which was sort of an in vogue reference for SF authors in the 1970s (it was also a big influence in Joe Haldeman’s Forever War.)  This is where the wide-eyed idealism of the 1950s started to get caught up in all the big cultural shifts of the 60s and 70s.  Toffler’s book dealt with the idea that change was beginning to move so rapidly that individuals wouldn’t be able to keep up with it and would become increasingly disaffected and deranged.  In Brunner’s novel this has indeed come to pass; people cling desperately to their tribal affiliations, since they’re the only thing that can be relied upon in a wonky world.  Those lucky enough to have jobs may be “plug-in people”, who are expected to relocate across the country and change jobs and companies two or three times a year to perform the exact same sort of white-collar labor no matter where they go.  The government’s decided that it’s too much trouble to clean up after major disasters and now pays people a small stipend to forgo modern conveniences like electricity and health care, although for the most part it’s captive to business interests.  And everything you do and say is likely to be bugged, recorded, analyzed and stored on behalf of entities that you don’t necessarily have contact with and might not approve of if you did.  And the government uses extreme measures to crack down on particular fugitives, including detention without charges and harsh interrogation methods.

Is it any wonder that everyone’s using a lot of tranquilizers?  For that matter does any of that sound familiar?  Our protagonist here is Nick Haflinger, who would be described as a hacker if that term was in common usage, who was trained by Tarnover, a combination think tank/boarding school/research laboratory/minimum security prison sort of place.  The goal of Tarnover is to produce individuals who are capable of adjusting to more or less any social situation without shutting down or flipping out (surfing the future shock, see?)  The eventual goal is to create, essentially, weaponized knowledge.  Nick eventually had some philosophical disputes with Tarnover, which he prudently kept to himself, managed to steal the equivalent of an administrative password to the computer network, and escaped.  Considering that he starts the novel immobilized in an interrogation chamber it doesn’t necessarily work out that well for him.

The first part of the novel focuses on his interactions with his interrogators.  They’ve got the power to directly manipulate his brain so he can’t lie to them, they just take the data they want about how he managed to evade capture while taking on all sorts of different identities.  But at the same time he’s able to engage in philosophical conversation with at least one of his captors, which allows him to bring that guy around to his point of view and escape once more, but this time being more hotly pursued and with his enemies more aware of his methods.  But he’s better than the pursuers so he manages to bring down the Man, thwart a retaliatory nuclear strike on him, and ride off into the free information future with his girl.

Brunner’s writing style here is unique.  There are a lot of flashbacks where you’re just thrown right into the action and you have to figure out who various people are (especially Nick).  It rewards you for keeping up, but it’s pretty clear that he meant the style to be disorienting in the same way that his subject matter (or the modern world, for that matter) is.  So it’s a nice mixture of the theme being illustrated right there in the text, which isn’t something that happens all the time.  And there are a couple of stretches of brilliance in there too.  Unfortunately there are also a large number of ponderous info dump sorts of conversations, and I don’t think I’ll be quoting passages out of this in the future.

The philosophy is also fairly interesting but doesn’t quite push the rock over the hill to become profound.  I find myself in agreement with most of the points made in this novel but I don’t think I could have been convinced by the novel if I didn’t already hold most of those beliefs.  One of the more interesting concepts introduced here is basically a prediction market, where everyone’s opinions are averaged out and used to set policy.  Nick eventually takes down the system by eliminating secrecy, so that everyone is able to find out what everyone else knows.  This has the effect of tearing down the corrupt system and creating a quasi-socialist meritocracy with no bloodshed.  This idea about eliminating all secrecy isn’t exactly unheard of in SF circles or writings, such as David Brin’s Transparent Society, but I’m a little disappointed in how well it all works out given the care that Brunner has taken to create a fractured dystopia.  Are the various violent street gangs really going to cooperate and allocate resources to each other based on need now?  But at the same time I can agree with the idea that we’re still stuck with tribal hunter-gatherer brains, which is probably the larger point.

For that matter I’m a little disappointed that he can suggest that such a complicated problem can have such an easy solution, and for that matter that there is really someone (the corrupt government and corporations) to blame.  As I get older I increasingly discover that there’s plenty of responsibility to go around for the evils of the world but not necessarily a lot of out and out guilt.  But in fiction it’s pretty common to be able to defeat one bad guy or system and fix all the problems.  I guess that’s because it’s a lot more fun to read about that way.  And the philosophical discussions are a little bit ponderous, they would probably sound pretty portentous if you were really hammered, but that’s really the sort of thing I associate with a lot of SF from the 70s – a lot of deep ideas, man, really deep.  And then you take a step back and ask, wait, what was that all about again?  The light that the day makes and the day that the light makes?  Oh well.

But I don’t really want to take that much away from this novel, since it’s actually pretty interesting and if he did get a lot of predictions wrong, he basically anticipated the Internet in 1975.  I don’t think I can really work my head around how strange this must have been to read at the time.  For a modern reader it’s perfectly natural that the first thing you do after getting off a plane is to head for a public terminal to check the news, the stock market and to check if you have any messages.  From the perspective of someone who’s constantly carrying around at least one device that will do all that stuff this seems elementary, but at the time there’s no way.  He even anticipated the Internet ecosystem arising around the networks, with various programs and counter-programs going about their purposes without interference from humans who in many cases aren’t aware of them.  But of course Brunner had a lot of tech readers so this may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent.

Anyway, this is a pretty interesting classic SF piece that got a bunch of things surprisingly right and others not so much, and it’s reasonably accessible as these things go.  It’s definitely interesting as an influence on some later works, but it does have some of the drawbacks of its era as well.  If any of the above sounds interesting then check it out, if you can find it.  It appears to have been reprinted recently, though.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition by Lewis Carroll (annotated by Martin Gardner)

To paraphrase E.B. White, you can dissect a joke like a frog but it has the same lethal effect.  So break out the formaldehyde, I guess, because this week I’ve been catching up on the classics, namely this annotated set of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice adventures (both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, with the bonus Wasp in a Wig).  Martin Gardner apparently managed to fit time into his busy schedule of writing, stage magic, mathematics and generally being an awesome polymath to also be one of the world’s leading Alice scholars.  This is the third edition of his annotations; the first set came out in 1960, the second in 1990, and this one in 1999, incorporating all the elements of the first two plus a little extra bonus material.  This is also going to be the last edition, since Gardner passed away in May of last year.  I may actually have more to say about Gardner at some point, since he was a pretty cool guy, but at this point I’ll just say that if you have any interest in recreational mathematics, his articles for Scientific American are a necessity.

Anyway.  It’s commonly known that these works were written by Lewis Carroll, the pseudonym of Charles L. Dodgson, and that he was inspired to write them after a boat outing with one Alice Liddell and her sisters (although he later disputed that he wrote them for any one person).  In daily life Dodgson was a professor of mathematics at Oxford who gave uninspiring lectures.  It was under his pseudonym that he penned the humorous and logically wonky works that have made him famous.  In his personal life he had a fixation on young girls which was somewhere between questionable and criminal (we’ll never know for sure and his biographers disagree), so reading these works and some of the included excerpts from letters he wrote to other young girls can be slightly unnerving, as a modern reader knowing about his proclivities you’re always wondering in the back of your mind what he was thinking when he was composing that stuff.

The other thing you think when reading this book is that these little girls were pretty goddamn smart, since the whole thing is packed to the rim with multi-lingual puns, satires of poetry from the 1500s on up, and various concepts from calculus to chess that aren’t necessarily that obvious or that elementary.  But of course the average little girl in England in the 1860s was probably mucking out a pig sty or working twelve hour shifts in a match factory, so this probably wasn’t intended for just everyone.  In fact it was filled with a bunch of in-jokes and subtle references to Oxford and people that Dodgson personally knew, as well as a bunch of contemporary references that will fly right over the head of a modern reader.  The really amazing thing is that it became a classic with so much of the content becoming inaccessible with time.

For instance, I was especially surprised to find that each of the nonsense poems is a direct satire of some other poem, typically moralizing and sanctimonious verse that would have been in common use for educating Victorian children and which they would have been intimately familiar with.  Gardner’s annotations are especially helpful there, since he tracks down and reprints the originals that are being mocked.  This side-by-side comparison demonstrates that these are pretty barbed takedowns, so I’m sure that it was much appreciated by the target audience.

Perhaps my own reading is impoverished, but I’d never read these all the way though before.  I had a collection of children’s stories inherited from my mother which contain an abridged version of Through the Looking-Glass, and although I did like some of the verse, I didn’t really appreciate the Victorian prose and a lot of the dream logic went over my head.  Now that I’m an adult, I can appreciate it a lot better.  Nonetheless, I have the same feeling about it that I’ve had whenever I’ve encountered Carroll’s work, namely that he has a lot of hits and a lot of misses, can’t necessarily tell the difference, and seems to be trying way too hard either way.  Am I saying that his work is not droll and amusing?  And that the situations are not terribly absurd and over-italicised?  Not in the least.  This is some good stuff, that’s why it’s still around after all this time, but it’s certainly the product of another era and a pretty strange dude.

The annotations are, as I said above, very useful in understanding the cultural milieu, and Garner mostly sticks to the verifiable facts and references as opposed to throwing in the raft of Freudian and Jungian psychological analyses that some critics have (apparently) written about these books, although I guess with a hookah-smoking three inch caterpillar it makes sense that people would want to.  If you do want to read that kind of thing there are a bunch of useful reference indexes in the back, as well as a list of all the film, television and theatrical adaptations over the years, including a porno adaptation that was made in the 1970s.  Nonetheless a lot of the notes are somewhat dry and pedantic, but I’m not going to lie, I live for that sort of thing, so I found it remarkably helpful.

In fact, that bibliography is so long and intimidating that I don’t have too much more to say on the subject, feeling a little small in comparison to what’s already out there and being unlikely to throw in anything that hasn’t already been said.  I feel like I’ve plugged a small hole in my missing canon knowledge and would recommend that anyone wanting to do the same to avail themselves of Gardner’s scholarship, that being much easier than looking up poetry from the 1500s yourself.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Belgariad by David Eddings

As I mentioned previously I’ve been working through my slush pile of books, which consists of whatever I happen to pick up at the used book store that looks vaguely interesting.  I’ll usually set them aside if something else comes up, but I do try to make it back to them occasionally.  There are a couple of gems in there from time to time, as well.  And I realize that life is short, but I try to do triage in advance, and I have a general rule that I have to finish everything that looks interesting enough to start, just because sometimes things end up pleasantly surprising you.

That’s one paragraph in and I haven’t said anything about the subject of the review yet – somewhere an English teacher is weeping.  So, thesis statement:  I didn’t like this one very much at all.  The Belgariad is a five-volume fantasy epic  by David Eddings.  (One good point:  the volumes are of quite moderate size.)  I’d heard vague favorable things about it in the past somewhere.  In retrospect this might have been a good sign to think about it more closely before beginning, because if I’d looked it up I would have discovered that Eddings made a list of every cliché that exists in fantasy literature and decided to make a story that incorporated all of them.  So if someone sets out to write a highly derivative and unoriginal work, is the work then a failure for being highly derivative and unoriginal?  Or is it a success?  I’ll leave that one up to the Zen masters and declare that either way I found it super annoying and I probably should have stopped reading it, with only increasing disbelief and sheer-bloody mindedness getting me to the end.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the story deals with Garion, who is (of course) a farm boy of approximately fifteen being raised by his aunt in the middle of a realm which is known for solid, practical sorts.  You know what, let’s just do some bullet points:
  • Garion has a birthmark which means that he’s descended from the line of the Rivan King, which makes him royalty and also means he’s the only one that can touch the Orb, a magical artifact which in the hands of the Dark God Torak can unmake the world; 
  •  Garion’s aunt turns out to be his many-greats aunt and an immortal sorceress, and the old storyteller turns out to be his many-greats grandfather and an immortal sorcerer.  Garion turns out to have powerful sorcerous powers of his own;
  •  There’s a prophecy which states that Garion will defeat Torak;
  •  From the beginning at the farm this crew manages to accumulate a posse of various ethnicities and abilities from the kingdoms they pass through;
  •  Including a runaway princess about Garion’s age who constantly bickers with him.  She also has red hair, non-human heritage and a name spelled with unnecessary apostrophes;
  •  Despite being, up to this point, an illiterate laborer, Garion turns out to be a leader of men, master sorcerer, potent warrior, and manages to engage a god in single combat before settling down with the princess and restoring peace to the land.

Oh, and did I mention that the prophecy is an actual character that can speak to Garion and tell him what he ought to do next?  Just in case you were wondering if there was any suspense, or anything.

As far as the writing goes, it’s basically reasonable journeyman prose, no particular issues there.  It’s all the metatextual issues that annoy me so much; in that Eddings basically seems to know better but takes the clichéd way out anyway.  I could probably make a pretty substantial list of the things that irritate me in this book.  In fact, let me do that:

  •  This fictional world is composed of a bunch of racially and culturally homogenous kingdoms.  As soon as you meet anyone you’ll be able to tell their personality at one glance.  Naturally all the good characters are white, even the nomadic horse-people culture, and believe in freedom, justice, truth, etc. although they live in feudalistic kingdoms.  The bad guys are Asiatic with heavy facial scars, exist in vast hordes, and are uniformly committed to doing evil on behalf of their human-sacrificing priesthood caste.  (For variety, there’s also a tribe of dark-skinned devil worshipers.)  This is just flat-out lazy and unforgivable.  Tolkien himself felt bad about making the Orcs uniformly evil later in life – he was a devout Catholic and after some reflection realized that by giving them some sort of moral agency would have been more appropriate.  There’s no excuse for doing it in the 1980s.  Which leads me to . . .
  •  The excessive protagonist-centered morality.  Garion and crew do quite a few morally dubious things throughout this series, including but not limited to:  sacking cities, burning people alive, entombing people alive, putting magical compulsions on people, theft, and changing people into animals.  In addition they essentially commit a few acts of out and out murder as distinct from combat.  Some of the characters even notice that their behavior isn’t necessarily all that different from that of the erstwhile bad guys.  And on that subject . . .
  •  Eddings’ characterization is in some ways way too good for this stupid plot.  He goes to considerable effort to make the princess a whiny, entitled brat, which is probably a reasonable enough way for such a person to be portrayed, but then he forgets to throw in the good parts.  She’s a main character so naturally we’ll root for her to fall in love with the hero, right?  If I were told I’d have to marry her I’d saw my own limbs off . . .
  •  Garion is a total slave to prophecies and he does whatever it, his grandfather or his aunt tell him he has to do.  He’ll travel where told, fight when told, get engaged to the princess, go on ludicrously dangerous quests, etc.  Despite being portrayed as a super-powerful sorcerer he never had any sort of training to use his powers; despite the reader being told that he is highly intelligent he is illiterate until about halfway through the series.  (His aunt didn’t teach him because she didn’t want him to accidentally read prophecies and get a big head (!) but he nonetheless had apparently no intellectual curiosity of any kind prior to the events of these novels.)
  •  Garion is an instant expert in fields where required, such as combat, sorcery, planning, prophetic interpretation, etc.  One of his very first acts of sorcery is to do something that Belgarath, his seven-thousand year old great-whatever grandfather, believes is fatal to even attempt.  He also masters swordplay during about a six month period where he doesn’t have any time to practice, from what we can tell.
  •  All of his companions are the very best in the world at whatever their stereotypical skill is, which means in battle they take on ridiculous numbers of foes and are in no particular danger, even trading supposed witticisms as they invariably prevail.  At other times they inexplicably skulk and hide from enemies that shouldn’t be that much of a threat, often spending long stretches cowering, which doesn't make a lot of sense considering that they win every fight they do have without any difficulty.  They also have vastly erratic abilities to detect the bad guys; sometimes they can detect them with their special abilities from miles away, other times they get inexplicably ambushed (such as inside fortresses and other places you wouldn’t expect hostile characters to even be able to enter at all).
In addition to all this, there are a couple of scenes that show a bunch of starving serfs living in squalor, and who later join up with Garion’s army simply to have a meal.  Yet at the end there’s no indication given that any of the factors which led to these poor bastards being in that state have really changed, and I guess we’re just supposed to forget about all the poverty and injustice as Garion gets to go back to his kingdom and . . . they return to their miserable shantytown and pay oppressive taxes to their overlords?  I guess?  I mean, this isn’t A Song of Ice and Fire or anything but it’s bad form to bring up this sort of awareness of why feudalism is so terrible and then ignore it.  This strikes me as even worse than just not mentioning it at all.  It’s the same with some of the aftermath of battles that the good guys are responsible for.

Everyone also gets married at the end and has lots of kids, whether they’ve shown any inclination for that sort of life and without regard to whether it really makes any sense given what we’ve been told about them or whether their partner is really a suitable match.

I could go on, but frankly I think that’s got it sufficiently covered.  I had the good luck to read Lloyd Alexander and Tolkien first, which has heavily biased what sort of fantasy literature I can tolerate.  I might have liked this more when I was a very young teen, but I’m not 100% sure about that, and anyway I don’t think this is intended to be a YA novel.  There’s apparently a sequel to this series where they do it all over again, but I think I’ll be skipping that one.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Thoughts about Netflix

There’s been a lot of ink of both the virtual and electronic sorts spilled over Netflix’s somewhat bizarre decision to split itself into two entities, especially after the massive negative feedback that they got after a recent price increase.

I’m a Netflix user from way back.  I set up my account for the first time in 2004 and I’ve been a user more often than not since then, although I have suspended my account on a couple of occasions when I wasn’t using it all that much.  Although ever since they’ve had the ability to instant stream I’ve never really been tempted to cancel service, it’s just too convenient to fire it up.

So the general consensus appears to be that Netflix always considered the future of its business to be in instant streaming rather than the physical mailing of DVDs.  As a technophile I can appreciate this idea, but in the real world as we currently live in it I think they’re making an awful mistake.  Nonetheless, they may not have much of a choice.  At this point there’s the technological ability to easily digitize every single movie and TV show ever made and stream it on demand.  It’s not practically possible for a couple of reasons, though.

First, there’s not really a good regime yet for what we’re going to do in the digital economy, and the way things are looking it appears that most of us plebians will be screwed.  Economics 101 tells us that in a perfect competition in a free market, marginal profit will be at the point of marginal cost, meaning that the profit you make from each additional item is essentially equal to what it costs to make the additional item.  But this sort of economics doesn’t really address the situation that we have now in electronic media, where all the cost of making a movie or television show comes up front and the marginal cost is essentially zero (technically you’ve got to pay for the electricity and storage media, but for all intents and purposes it doesn’t cost anything extra.)  Instead we have the copyright regime, where movie studios and other copyright holders get monopoly power over their products and can engage in rent seeking behavior.

Second, there’s the Internet companies, who in some cases overlap the copyright holders, who aren’t content to simply be common carriers and want a piece of the action too.  This conflict has been spilling out for some time and although we still officially have an open Internet, it may be only a matter of time before some of the providers start trying to charge extra for moving certain bits.  We’re already starting to see usage caps and our service isn’t anywhere near the standard that you can get in other first-world countries – more rent seeking.

So here we have Netflix, which doesn’t own the product that it’s providing and doesn’t own the delivery system that gets it where it’s going.  What they do have is name recognition and ease of use, although frankly their menu system is pretty bad and their selection isn’t all that great either.  Their renewal with Starz fell through because Starz wanted more money, which is going to cost them a significant portion of their library of new releases.  They’re starting to get grief from the ISPs because of the bandwidth that they are using.  So really their decision to spin off their two divisions is a little inexplicable to me.  Since they’ve got the subscriber base, they can use that as leverage to their content deals.  Without their physical subscriber base, they’re in the position of having to outbid companies with lots more cash, such as Amazon, Apple, and Google, while losing a lot of what makes them a market leader.  I don’t see how they’re going to win that fight.

Common wisdom also suggests that they intend to sell or otherwise dispose of the DVD by mail business.  While I’m sure that this is a pretty capital intensive business requiring most of their actual employees and having a lot of infrastructure, this seems to me to be a solid business model.  Streaming can’t compare (yet) to the quality that you get from a Blu-Ray or even a DVD, which justifies the work that people put into their home theaters, and for that matter Netflix’s massive inventory gives them a leg up on anyone who wants to enter this business.  I think that rumors of the imminent demise of physical media are overstated, whether they’re putting optical drives in the new Macs or not.  There’s simply too much of a user base and it still offers tangible advantages over streaming.

So has Netflix managed to shoot itself in the foot?  I don’t know, I guess time will tell.  If the studios manage to force it out of business, though, then they may have just shot themselves higher up, such as in the groin or stomach.  It’s clear that each of the providers wants its pound of flesh, but if their demands make it unprofitable to stream or simply make streaming the less attractive option (either by selection or by price) then it’s not going to take off, no matter what technological projections are made.

Anyway, I require a substantial number of Sesame Street episodes available on demand plus a reasonable selection of Asian action movies, so I guess I’ll be keeping both of these services for the moment.  More price hikes or a change in circumstances may make me change my mind, though, and if it’s one thing that a business doesn’t want its customers doing, it’s actually thinking about the service.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Hunter by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)

Donald E. Westlake, who died at the end of 2008, was a ridiculously prolific writer in many genres under several pseudonyms.  He’s not really that easy to characterize, but under his own name he wrote a large number of light comedy criminal caper novels (as well as other things).  Under his pen name of Richard Stark, he wrote more dark crime stories, often featuring the character of Parker.  I’d been meaning to read these for years and finally got around to reading The Hunter, which is not only famous in its own right but has been filmed multiple times (actors playing characters based on Parker include Lee Marvin, Mel Gibson, Jim Brown, and Chow Yun-fat – clearly this has some cross cultural appeal).

Anyway, while organizing my thoughts for this post I realized what it was about this book that seems so familiar, and I decided that this is basically the inverse of a private detective novel.  Although I’m a fan of that genre, I used to find it very vexing that these PIs had such a huge chip on their shoulders at all times.  They’d certainly be within their rights to sass and threaten crooked cops, hoodlums, lowlifes and the like, but often you’ll find one of the heroes of such a novel antagonizing people who probably could help them or at least aren’t actively out to do them any harm.  Phillip Marlowe is especially bad about this, to the point where he could have probably solved some of his cases a lot faster if he was nicer to people.  To an extent I still feel like this is the case, but having read some of Chandler’s essays on the subject, I’m more sympathetic to the idea that a typical private eye character has a Code, which he never deviates from.  In Marlowe’s case, he very roughly feels that someone who has a certain amount of money or power must have gotten it by screwing over somebody, even if it’s not him, and therefore he will never give such a person the satisfaction of showing them respect.

Parker is a criminal who has a Code.  He’s not a petty criminal and he’s not a joiner, he’s strictly freelance.  He doesn’t have much of an inner life or emotions of any kind, simply pride in a job well done.  Parker spends his life in nice hotels, spreading his money among hotel safes, and when he gets low on cash he conducts a crime to get more, something he does maybe once or twice a year.  When he does a job he takes extra care in planning, if he brings in confederates it’s only people that he can trust, and he takes care not to work with the same people too often.  He’s super paranoid about his identity, to the point that everyone only knows him as “Parker”, with no other name, and even that is heavily implied not to be the name he was born with anyway.  His Code requires that he keep a low profile, complete the job, and leave no loose ends.  He doesn’t care a single thing about any other person besides himself and he’ll take anything he wants.

It’s a little unusual that such a person has a wife, but he does, and she’s described as the only person that he’s ever felt love for.  Or hate, when one of his partners double crosses him after a job and forces her to shoot him as he steals all the money from their hijacking job and then burns down the house that Parker is in.  This is how he ends up on a prison farm on a vagrancy charge, and having that loose end is why he’s in such a hurry to get off it.

At this point it would be simple to have sympathy for Parker, but I don’t think that’s what Westlake has in mind.  You can admire his competence and his single-mindedness, but he’s not really an admirable guy in any way.  For instance, Parker thought that the man who double-crossed him was flaky and so he was planning on killing him and taking his share of the loot already except that he got beaten to the punch (it wasn’t self defense on the part of Resnick, the betrayer, since Resnick didn’t know that Parker planned to do it, they each conceived their crosses separately).  And the job that they’d just completed was a hijacking where they’d killed about twenty guys.  Also in his hurry to get off the prison farm and get his revenge on the people who have wronged him he ends up murdering a prison guard just to shave two months off his sentence.  Then during his revenge he ends up killing a couple of innocent bystanders and doesn’t appear to lose a lot of sleep over it, although he does get irritated that one had the poor manners to die on him.  Still, he’s got style and he doesn’t apologize for any of his actions, which makes spending time with him pretty interesting.  You certainly wouldn’t want to run across him if you had anything he wanted, though.

Another interesting point is that the revenge part isn’t actually all that hard.  Parker’s a huge man, both mentally and physically strong, and he’s perfectly capable of killing with his bare hands, whereas Resnick is kind of a doofus.  He tries to lay low for a while, but once Parker finds him it’s really not much of a fight.  In fact it’s so disappointing that Parker decides to make more of a challenge for himself.  You see, the reason that Resnick stole the entire score in the first place was because he owed a debt to an organized crime syndicate.  Parker approaches the syndicate and explains that $45,000 of the money that Resnick paid to them didn’t actually belong to Resnick, and he would like it back.  (This money has been indexed for inflation in some of the film adaptations.)  The syndicate doesn’t really have a beef with him about his problems with Resnick, but they tell Parker that they consider this a personal debt of Resnick’s and they’re not going to pay it.  The syndicate is portrayed as a very 1960s corporate entity; you could easily see Robert MacNamara running it and they are basically MBAs, not street thugs.  As far as it goes they are pretty reasonable and tell him that they’d honor reasonable corporate debts, but that this isn’t one.  Parker does more than ask, and pretty soon the syndicate tells him that he can have the stupid forty-five grand – oh, and now he’s marked for death.

Originally Westlake planned for this novel to end with Parker’s capture by the police, and although that subplot is still in there and provides a pretty funny ending, Parker actually ends up escaping to see another day.  As it happens Westlake’s editor liked this book so much that he offered a deal to publish more books featuring Parker if Westlake would change the ending.  Apparently, there are over twenty of them, some of which are very well regarded.

Westlake has a very powerful and lean prose style and it’s probably at its peak here.  I will say that it’s obviously a product of its era, but Parker is sort of an anachronism even there.  I’m not sure how he adapted to being in more of a modern era (if in fact he did).  Some of the crimes that Parker commits are obviously impractical in this era of computer databases and cell phones.  It’s pretty amusing how it’s so hard for the organized crime folks to get hold of each other – they’ve got to make a couple of calls to figure out where the person they’re looking for is staying, then page them and wait a half hour for them to call back, and so on.  Many of the other references are equally dated.

And yet it’s very funny to watch Parker put the screws to so many people to get back $45,000 that he got from an armed robbery.  Because once Parker’s stolen your money fair and square it’s Parker’s money.  It’s the Code.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

If you obtained Holden Carver’s personnel file from the shadowy government agency where he used to work, it would tell you that he’d gone rogue while on assignment, killing his teammates and stealing the artifact they were supposed to retrieve.  It would also tell you that he dropped off the grid for a while and later resurfaced as an operative in a super-villain organization, where he’s been rapidly rising up the ranks and performing various terrorist attacks all over the world.  What the file wouldn’t tell you is that he did all this under orders to infiltrate this organization, and that’s because the man who ordered Carver to do it never wrote it down and is currently in a coma.  No one else knows that Carver is actually a double agent (well, supposed to be a double agent) and he’s living a life of quiet desperation, terrified of getting discovered but also wondering how he can still claim to be one of the good guys after everything he’s forced to do to keep his cover.

Welcome to Sleeper, a 24 issue comic series which consisted of two 12-issue runs from 2003-2005.  I re-read it after getting it back from a friend who I’d loaned it to; it’s also available in trade paperback form and is worth looking for if you’re into this sort of thing.  I really wish that HBO or some premium cable channel would buy the rights and do a miniseries out of it, as it’s got everything that they’re looking for today: graphic violence, moral ambiguity, strong characterization, lots of gratuitous nudity, and so on.  It's got very solid writing by Brubaker, and Phillips' art style lends itself very well to the gritty and seedy nature of the story.

This is essentially a noir story told in a superhero world, full of double crossing, intrigue, and overwrought voice-overs.  Carver narrates and gives flashbacks where applicable as he explains his various predicaments, although he keeps some of his cards close to the vest.  He was exposed to an alien artifact which has made him essentially indestructible; he quickly regenerates from bodily injury, he’s impervious to pain, and he’s basically invulnerable to psychic probes or manipulation.  It’s that last trait that inspired the choice to send him into the evil organization, since it’s run by an individual named Tao who has powerful but unspecified mental skills.  Tao’s henchmen all have cybernetic enhancements or super powers of their own.  In fact this provides a lot of the humor of the series, as the various operatives trade origin stories out of boredom, and Brubaker seems to go out of his way to make some of the powers as ludicrous as possible.

Fittingly for a noir series, though, it’s pretty damn dark.  Most of the first season deals with Carver’s attempts to avoid discovery as a mole while escaping the organization, if he can.  Since everyone on the nominal good side thinks he’s a traitor, they won’t trust him, and furthermore Tao’s got moles on the other side too.  In the very first issue Tao calls Carter into his office to tell him there’s a mole and he thinks he knows who it is – a man who goes by the name of the Nihilist.  Carver’s ordered to find out if the Nihilist is betraying the organization and, if so, to kill him – and, if not, to let Tao know so they can continue searching for the mole.  This obviously puts Carver in something of an ethical bind, especially when he manages to discover that the Nihilist actually is working for the good guys.  Nonetheless, Carver ends up killing the guy anyway, which is the point when I realized that this series was something unique.  Most heroes would have tried to warn off the Nihilist, but Carver realizes that his cover is best maintained that way and so he just goes with it.  (Also, many writers would have made it self-defense so that Carver could get the practical benefits without all the moral difficulties, but here Carver just straight up murders the poor bastard.)

Most of the first 12 issues involves putting the screws to Carver as he attempts to make contact with various people who may be able to get him out, and his personal situation gets worse and worse.  It seems like the world really has it out for him, and Brubaker takes the advice of Raymond Chandler - if you've backed your character into a corner and don't know what to do next, have someone burst in with a gun.  Or a particle blaster, weaponized black hole, flying car, or whatever.

This is a good point to stop reading if you intend to read the series and don’t want to know some surprises.  Toward the end of the first series, Carver ends up with his cover blown and tries to escape from both sides, only to be recaptured by Tao, who reveals that he knew all along that Carver was a double agent and was really just screwing around with him.  Nonetheless, Tao states that he considers actions to be more important than motivations, and that Carver really is great at his job – and offers him the chance to come back to work (or die, of course, Tao is evil after all).  Holden, out of options, accepts.  Elsewhere, John Lynch, Carver’s old handler, conveniently wakes up from his coma and heads back to his own job.

The second series deals with the aftermath of all these events as Tao and Lynch try to manipulate Carver to their own ends, and Carver tries to accomplish his own goals while fighting the knowledge that he’s expendable once one of the two has gotten enough from him.  These two are strategic geniuses and Carver’s kind of a lunkhead with a good survival sense, which makes him wonder if he stands a chance, but also means that he stands a good chance of being underestimated while they focus on each other.

All this opens up a bunch of great philosophical dilemmas.  Carver notes on several occasions that the nature of his work doesn’t really change that much no matter what name is on his business card.  He was already involved in assassinations, espionage, and other dirty tricks when he was working for the “good guys”.  So he has to acknowledge Tao’s point, that he can’t really justify his actions on the grounds that he has good intentions since the same effects happen anyway.  Nonetheless, the writing doesn’t skirt over the fact that Tao is really just engaging in sophistry here and just because he has a good point doesn't make him correct.  For that matter Lynch's concept that the ends justify the means doesn't come out that well either.

The supporting cast is also great.  Most of the folks that work for the evil organization aren’t bad people necessarily.  Carver’s friend Genocide Jones is actually a pretty decent guy aside from his occupation, and Carver's love interest Miss Misery has to commit evil acts for the sake of her health (long story).  But the organization also contains people like Steeleye (a telepathic pedophile), Peter Grimm (who really is bad), and Tao himself, who, rhetoric aside, is a complete monster.  Some of the people who work for Lynch are no great shakes themselves.

On the whole I thought that the first half is stronger than the second half, since it tends to straight-up action once Carver’s cover is blown.  Still, there’s a lot of good intrigue as Carver manages to outwit and outlast all the powerful and intelligent forces gunning for him, and it builds to a very powerful conclusion.  It’s not necessarily a happy ending for anyone, but some sort of justice does get done and Carver never really expected to get out unscathed.  It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly worth checking out.