Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

One of the things that I found most fascinating about Nick Harkaway’s first novel, The Gone Away World, was how there was a lack of a villain.  I mean, yes, there was a climactic martial arts duel to the death with an evil kung fu master in a hidden fortress, and that guy was in the middle of conducting an evil and dastardly plot, and he was certainly an antagonist.  But the evil guy had not caused the apocalypse, that was actually done by the protagonist, and even that wasn’t his fault because it was orders and because someone else would have done it if he hadn’t.  The antagonist was trying to keep the world running in some semblance of order, and while he had of course gone about it in an unethical and immoral way, it was still an understandable plan.   Defeating the antagonist didn’t actually solve much besides ending his immediate threat, and (at least in my opinion) led to an ambiguous, albeit hopeful, ending.

This theme is somewhat attenuated in Angelmaker, Harkaway’s second novel, which does feature a straight-up evil psychopath as its nemesis, whose evil permeates everything and whose defeat brings closure.  However, even that dealt with some coordination problems.  And here, in Harkaway’s third novel, the ultimate villain here is Moloch, which is to say that it’s everybody, and nobody.  With his third book, Harkaway has really hit his stride.  I was a little worried after the manic intensity of The Gone Away World that he was a one-book wonder, possibly never to equal it again, but I guess I shouldn’t have.  Because he is the real deal.

The most important fact about this book is that Lester Ferris loves the boy.  This is what sets it apart from many books with similar themes.  Yes, Tigerman is the story of a mostly ordinary man who becomes a costumed superhero, and this has been done many times, with many variations.  In this one, however, Ferris does it because of love.

I suppose a few words on the setting are in order.  This is something of a pre-apocalypse novel.  It takes place on the fictional island of Mancreu, a former British colonial possession and currently slated for demolition, perhaps by nuclear weapons or possibly fuel-air bombs, it is somewhat unclear.  You see, Mancreu made money for years by allowing a chemical factory to operate, which dumped its waste into the island’s volcano.  But as it happens, these wastes caused unpredictable mutations to the bacteria that lived in that hellish caldera, and now they are unpredictably belching back up fumes unknown to science, with unpredictable and occasionally dangerous results.  As a result, the nations of the world have decided that Mancreu has to go, although it’s somewhat ambiguous if this will actually solve the problem, or even that there is in fact a problem.  Nonetheless it makes everyone feel better to be doing something about the situation, so that’s what they’re going to do.

The exact date of the demolition hasn’t been decided upon, but the better connected and well heeled residents of the island have started to Leave (the capital indicating that they’re gone for good, as opposed to just knocking off back to their own house at the end of the day).  The poorer citizens are still hanging around.  The assembled nations of the world aren’t going to kill all the ones that can’t afford to go, but it’s also clear that no one’s lining up to take them, either.  There’s a good chance that the final evacuation of those who couldn’t manage to leave on their own will be to some sort of refugee camp, for who knows how long.

And absolutely none of this is Lester’s problem, he is just a sergeant nearing retirement from the service.  He’s been assigned to Mancreu as a British representative and also its police service, just to show the colors, and is not expected to actually do anything besides file the occasional report and investigate the odd petty crime.  Like how someone stole some fish off the docks.  And someone’s been stealing small dogs.

One thing that Lester isn’t paid to look into is the odd major crime, for instance how the assorted intelligence services, criminal underworlds and major corporations of the world are using Mancreu’s current no-man’s-land status to set up a fleet of black and grey market ships out in the harbor to conduct . . . business.  As long as they keep it out there it’s not Lester’s problem, or Mancreu’s problem, or as far as anyone at all is concerned, anyone’s problem.  As a result the Fleet is mostly invisible, but always a presence.

In the meantime, Lester engages in the odd amateur boxing match and considers adopting the boy, a pre-teen who speaks almost entirely in leet and has an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and tropes.  It’s all gone about in a very British way; Lester doesn’t want to suggest that he adopt the boy if he already has a family, and doesn’t want to put him off by asking, so they spend time together and Lester tries to figure out what the boy’s deal is.  He calls himself Robin, but that’s not his name, but of course Lester doesn’t believe that, and isn’t meant to.

Now this being a Nick Harkaway novel, before you know it one of Lester’s friends is gunned down in his bar by some desperadoes connected to the Fleet, and the boy has convinced Lester that what the island needs is a superhero, and then there are some riots, the accidental uncovering of a major heroin smuggling operation through the island and viral reveal of same through YouTube, and the occasional crucifixion.  Lester has to navigate angry mobs, hostile bureaucrats, a crazed sigilist, and a semi-mythical gangster known as Bad Jack, all in the name of not being a hero.  Because that’s not in his job description – really, his bosses are going to be upset about it if they find out.

This book doesn’t really have the insane, maniac joy of The Gone Away World, but it’s got a heart and it’s got everything else where it counts.  It’s actually sort of a downer in spots, enough so that I had to stop reading it a couple of times to catch up with my feels.  But in the end you’ve got to pick up and soldier on, as Lester finds and as the world teaches.  It may not be possible to defeat Moloch, but it’s also possible to deny him by refusing to make the sacrifice, and taking the consequences.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Revenge Spectacular - John Wick and The Demon Princes, by Jack Vance

So what does a set of old SF works have to do with a slick modern action movie?  Almost nothing!  But they both deal with some badass out to kill a bunch of guys, and that’s enough thematic similarity for me to join them at the hip for a review.

First up is John Wick, an outlandishly entertaining film directed by Keanu Reeves’ former stuntman from the Matrix films, based around a screenplay that doesn’t take itself seriously, but is acted very seriously, to great effect.  Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a former hit man whose wife has just died, leaving him with an empty heart and a cute puppy.  It’s super cute, ya’ll.  It would be a shame if something happened to it.  I mean, really terrible.  Like if Wick ran into some young Russian mafia guys who wanted to buy his cool ’69 Mustang and he didn’t want to sell it, and then they followed him home and kicked his ass, took the car and killed the puppy.  (The chief Russian kid is played by Alfie Allen, who is Theon on “Game of Thrones” on HBO, and while a good actor is cursed with a face that is going to have him continue playing this role for the next twenty years.)

If that happened, then the only thing to do would be for him to dig out his stash of guns, put on a black suit and tie, and go out murdering.  It’s only logical.

Actually it turns out that Wick used to work for Theon Greyjoy’s dad Viggo (Michael Nyqvist, another good actor, and while European is no more Russian than Alfie Allen or myself for that matter).  Viggo takes the reasonable for an action movie tactic of simply calling up Wick on the phone to see if maybe they can resolve this whole situation without resorting to extreme measures.  Wick says no, or rather he doesn’t say anything at all.  Viggo then sends a bunch of guys to Wick’s house to kill him, which goes about like you’d expect, namely a crazy gun battle.

Most of the fight scenes in this movie – and there are many – revolve around various sorts of gunplay, but Keanu pulls a little bit of kung fu every now and again, usually grappling moves followed by execution-style shots to the head.  Some of those were clearly CG, and every now and again you’ll spot some guys just sort of hanging around to get shot, but on the whole this is some really good action.  They keep everything clear and don’t use a bunch of jump cuts or shaky cam; you can always tell who is where.

I’m actually flabbergasted by how effective this movie is.  The plot is about as thin as you can possibly get and still be coherent, and it takes place in a bizarre world filled entirely with elite hit men, service providers for them, henchmen, and some random partygoing civilians.  The contract killers have their own currency, their own social clubs, some sort of bizarre code of honor, and they all seem to know each other from way back.  Somewhat surprisingly, everyone seems to be cool with Wick’s whole revenge agenda, or at least they understand that it’s just how he gets.  It’s surprisingly nuanced that way.

In the same vein, they actually manage to get more depth to these characters than they have any right to deserve.  It’s relatively clear that Wick is actually pissed about the dog, but that he was more pissed about his wife dying and this is really something of an excuse to get himself up and out of the house.  The spoiled Russian kid is also good; he spends his time in hot tubs with sexy women and talks shit about Wick to his dad’s men.  When they give him a verbal thrashing as a result he takes it out on his friend, who gets this hangdog expression like I can’t believe you’re doing this to me, man.  Viggo clearly thinks his son is a total fuckup but goes up against this unstoppable killer anyway just because it’s his kid, after all.

They manage to throw in all the scenes you’d expect to find in a movie like this one, like the “honor among thieves” scene, and the part where someone demands that they put down the guns and fight like gentlemen, and so on.  That they pay all homage to every cliché without actually falling down into the trap is all the more impressive.

So this is a great movie for action movie fans, probably the best I’ve seen all year and one of the better ones that I can recall in some time.  It’s exactly what it looks like, but does that super well, so this isn’t to be missed if brainless action movies are your thing.

Anyway, on to The Demon Princes.  For whatever reason, I have just never read any Jack Vance, although people talk him up as one of the all-time SF greats, and his ideas have heavily influenced D&D, among other things.  In fact that’s how I came to read this one, since I was rereading some volumes of Order of the Stick in preparation for the fifth volume release in December, and at one point one of the characters mentions Vance.  I ought to read some of that, says I, and next library trip here we are.

People say good things about The Dying Earth, but this one was checked in and seemed more accessible, so I decided to go with it.  This is actually a compilation of five novels written by Vance between 1964 and 1981, with the first two appearing in 1964 and the third in 1967, followed by a twelve year hiatus, then the final two in 1979 and 1981.  With the long gap there was obviously a chance for Vance’s narrative voice to change somewhat, and the anthologies recognize this by compiling the first three into Volume I and the last two into Volume II.

The protagonist of these works is one Kirth Gersen, introduced as he is walking into a bar on a backwater planet.  In his pocket is a piece of paper with five names on it:  Attel Malagate, Kokor Hekkus, Viole Falushe, Lens Larque, and Howard Alan Treesong.  These five are the titular Demon Princes, slavers and galactic-wide criminals who sacked Gersen’s homeworld of Mount Pleasant.  Gersen and his grandfather escaped the carnage, and the grandfather then shaped him into an instrument of revenge.  He’s a master of armed and unarmed combat, a starship astrogator, and an adept at exotic poisons.

In a modern SF work these various traits would probably be explained via flashback over many pages, but these are about 200 pages long each and there’s some story to get into, so in this case Gersen basically just states that he’s been trained in hand-to-hand combat and knife fighting, and knows a lot about poisoning people.  The Golden Age authors didn’t waste words on this stuff.

Reading these sorts of works can be polarizing.  You basically have to take this sort of genre work with a big grain of salt at this point, since the future has definitely left the past behind.  This is another one of those worlds where anybody can take an interstellar trip on a lark, but otherwise technology is still stuck in the ‘60s.  They still use slide rules to calculate their hyperspace routes, and although they’ve got video phones they have to be at a land line to do so.  Cash is still heavily used throughout the galaxy, and although anyone can have cosmetic surgery to alter their features or skin tone, medical treatment does not appear all that much more advanced than you would expect to find decades ago.  And they’ve still got magazines and newspapers in the future.  One neat touch is something that works sort of like Wikipedia where people can contribute their personal knowledge to a big database, but it works through calling a clerk and using a Telex arrangement.

The villains are a reprehensible lot, and don’t bother to deny their complicity in the events.  None of them have made any attempt to reform, and in fact are continuing to commit various heinous acts up to the present of the novel.  With five villains and five books, the formula is reasonably clear – one book, one villain.  The five don’t actually work together in the normal sense; the Mount Pleasant raid was sort of a proof of concept or demarcation of authority, and they don’t hang out.  It’s unclear whether they’re aware that they’re being pursued, or if they even know they’re being picked off, especially since they heavily use false identities and shell companies to disguise themselves when they’re anywhere with something resembling law and order.  In the social media age, it’s pretty hard to believe that such notorious desperadoes could manage to hide their identities so completely or that known information about them (such as their real names) would not be generally disseminated.  Gersen is also able to kill the Demon Princes and their henchmen without anticipating any sort of official or legal troubles for doing so.

I really don’t know if I can give this an enthusiastic recommendation.  The characters are flat, the dialogue is pretty stilted, and the setting isn’t believable at all.  The writing itself is okay, but more workmanlike than anything, although it does seem to have notably improved in the last two volumes.  Perhaps that’s just because it’s written in a more modern, less stilted style.  As an introduction to Vance this doesn’t persuade me that his reputation is deserved, though.

There’s one more element about these books that I feel is worth a mention in particular, and that’s the treatment of women.  This sort of period SF was not a good place for depiction of women; they were typically absent, and where present limited to support roles and housework.  Here it ends up being a little more insidious than that.  In the first book, Gersen asks out a nice young lady on a date, but she ends up being captured by one of Malagate’s henchmen, who is a serial rapist.  In the second book, the beautiful Alusz Iphigenia is desired by Hekkus, and Gersen ends up buying her as a slave, then saving her from another sexual assault, and gets frustrated when she doesn’t immediately want to have sex with him.  In the third book we find out that Falushe started his criminal career in high school by kidnapping 28 members of the girls’ choir and selling them into slavery, later kidnapping another girl and forcing her to give birth to her own clones to find one that would love him.  In the fourth book Gersen saves another girl from rape, while leaving her friends to the same fate; and in the fifth, Treesong forces yet another girl to throw herself at Gersen with the threat that he’ll kill her father if she doesn’t.

These women are generally treated as plot devices without agency, and considering all the bad things that happen to them this is doubly unfortunate.  I would like to give a shout out to Alusz Iphigenia, though, the only female character to appear in more than one novel (the second and third).  By the third novel, Gersen has managed to cheat Kokor Hekkus out of a staggering amount of money, enough that he is able to buy whole corporations outright and conceal himself by setting up shell companies and the like.  Alusz sensibly points out that he can use all this money to hire investigators and assassins to complete his program of revenge, which will both increase his chances of success and decrease his own personal risk.  This is actually a good idea, but Gersen refuses to modify his plans.  So she tells him good luck, but I’m out of here.  Man, I wish she had more to do in these books.

If you’re a genre aficionado, then The Demon Princes is probably a worthwhile read if your to-read stack is low, although I didn’t find the books especially compelling.  If you were to read just one, I’d say the fourth is the best.  Lens Larque’s plan to get some revenge of his own against some snooty rich people is actually pretty funny, and it contains some of the best action of the whole series.  I also admire his grammar; when Gersen finally confronts him and says he is there to kill Larque (literally, he says “I am here to kill you”), Larque responds by saying “We shall see who kills whom.”  But there’s a book five, right?  I think we know who kills whom here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Brothers Cabal by Jonathan L. Howard

I’ve previously reviewed Johannes Cabal the Necromancer and Johannes Cabal the Detective here, with generally favorable to very favorable opinions.  I hate to admit to slacking on the job side hobby but I did read the third one, Johannes Cabal the Fear Institute, and just never got around to writing anything about it, mostly on the grounds that I thought it was just all right, without being good enough to merit high praise or bad enough to deserve scorn.

So here’s the thing about Johannes Cabal; he’s more of a force of nature or a plot device than an actual character, and that’s actually just fine by me.  If you’ve read the first volumes in this series (and if you haven’t, then hit the Back button on your browser now, or forever hold your peace) then you know that Cabal did not become a necromancer by personal choice as he would see it.  Rather, he was in love, with a fiancée, but unfortunately for the both of them she drowned in a freak accident.  Most people would consider this tragic and unfair and slowly go about their lives.  Cabal isn’t most people, and considers it a personal affront.  He therefore set out to restore his dead love, and not just as some sort of shambling horror or partial simulacra, but full body and soul resurrection.  He doesn’t let the fact that this is an affront to God and nature stop him, or even the fact that it may be impossible.  And in service of this goal, he is prepared to do absolutely anything, anything at all.  He’s also smart and cunning enough to outwit the people that propose to stop him from doing these things.

Someone like that can be a great character, but someone with such insane drive and no social skills needs a good foil.  In the first book, the foil was his cheerful, people-pleasing brother Horst, who had unfortunately been turned into a vampire as the result of an early mistake made by Johannes.  Horst was willing to help Johannes up to a point – but past that point his own conscience prevented him from allowing Johannes to damn the innocent, and he disrupted Johannes’ deal with the devil at the cost of his own life.  Death.  Undeath?  Whatever.  In the second book, the foil position was taken by Miss Barrow, who also had a strong code of morals  and who found Johannes inexplicable, without any romance.

The third book was lacking a really good person for Johannes to play against; he was with three pretty non-descript dudes who I can’t really remember all that well at this point, although I do believe one was eventually eaten by cats and the third wasn’t really a man at all.  Nonetheless, the end of that book ended with Johannes coming back from a slight case of undeath and into the helpful arms of a cliffhanger, who is quickly revealed in the opening parts of this book to be Horst, restored to life.  Or undeath?  Either way, still a vampire.

This is a great start, which I strongly approve of.  This was a good development since it not only provided a good foil for Johannes again, but also looked like it was going to be another genre shift for the series; the first being a dark supernatural comedy, the second a steampunk mystery, the third a Lovecraft pastiche complete with Nyarlathotep appearance.  So Horst got started telling his story about how it is that he came to be alive again – undead again – okay, let’s just ignore that from now on  - and how he got to be there in Johannes’ garden.

We find out that he was raised by a mysterious cabal (lower case, meaning conspiracy, sorry for any confusion) who’s trying to raise various supernatural horrors and found a homeland for them.  They’ve got a necromancer of their own and a bunch of lycanthropes; they want Horst to raise some vampires for them for elite soldiers and officers, as well as to be a commander himself.  There’s also a mysterious fourth person coming, with unspecified by apparently very unpleasant powers of his own.  Horst sees himself as much more moral than the venture capitalists backing up this project, which is good stuff.  There’s some really pithy writing here.  And then it sort of continues for a while.  And continues.  This flashback portion goes on for over half the book, well over 200 pages.
Now, I’ve said before that I don’t mind long books, and I don’t mind long exposition, but I have to admit that I was ready for this particular flashback to be over long before it actually was.  As Johannes points out, Horst is sitting right there, so he clearly doesn’t die.  It’s pretty hard to have dramatic tension when you know that Horst is going to escape from his travails, although I will admit that the side characters Horst runs into are varied and interesting, and the travails are extra-intense in spots.  Anyway, Horst finally wraps it up and asks Johannes for help.

This is generally not an excellent plan, since Johannes and “helpful” don’t belong even in the same area code.  But in this case Johannes is willing to go along with it, since 1) he actually does like Horst, probably about as much as he can like anyone, and is willing to do him a solid; and 2) Horst believes that one of the people involved in this evil plot is another necromancer by the name of Rufus Maleficarus, whom Johannes believed he had killed some time ago.  I guess with necromancers it doesn’t always stick, and in any event, Johannes decides that he must finish off this guy again, if indeed it really is him.

Without the risk of getting too spoilery, it also turns out that the actual brains behind this particular evil plot wants revenge against Johannes himself, and the explanation as to who it was and why is absolutely the comic highlight of the novel.  Horst, the people person, figures it out first; Johannes is puzzled as to why this individual would want revenge against him.  After all, Johannes was clearly acting in self defense when he shot the person’s father, and there’s no reason for anyone to get all put out about a clear case of self defense, especially when the person was standing right there at the time and could witness the whole thing for themselves.  And certainly they wouldn’t have had any reasonable expectation that Johannes would have later attempted to save their life from a deadly situation Johannes caused, since they didn’t have that kind of relationship.  Horst understands it all perfectly well, but doesn’t bother to explain it.

If the whole book had been written to that standard I would have loved it and said it was the best book of the year and slept with it under my pillow to absorb the good  mojo and all that.  Unfortunately it isn’t; the last half once Johannes actually enters the picture again goes off the rails somewhat, since it violates one of the rules of fiction – if there’s a plan then things can’t go according to plan.  Johannes makes plans, and then things work out pretty well.  He defeats a villain with basically no effort whatsoever, although Horst does have a little difficulty with his situation.

The title really does say it; this book is really about the brothers Cabal (incidentally, and not something I really mention much, providing really fantastic cover art), and although there are some potentially interesting side characters, they don’t really get enough page time to really shine.  I really liked the all-girl traveling steampunk airship squadron, and would have been interested to know more about them; the heads of various anti-occult secret societies were also interesting enough.

This whole book is basically a setup for the fifth volume – although Johannes is really smart and cagy, it appears that he has finally fallen for a trap this time, a very, very ingenious meta-trap prepared by his most fiendish rival of all.  And that part is great, since I don’t mind the smooth sailing if it’s all part of the villain’s scheme.  But I want to see the payoff, dammit.  I really liked parts of this book and I think I like where it’s going, but I wanted it to get there already.  If it needed to be 800 pages long, fine, I’ll stay up late.  I’ve been greatly appreciative of the genre-bending efforts of the series so far, but if it’s going to become a serial adventure which always ends on a cliffhanger, I may not go along for the ride.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson

America has been blessed by history and geography in ways few other nations ever have, and it’s reflected in our national psyche to a large and occasionally unhealthy extent.  Convinced of our national goodness and rightness, there’s been a lesson that we’ve had to relearn a few times in our history, namely that being virtuous isn’t in itself enough to win you any wars.  This goes back a long way; in one of my college history classes I remember reading some letters by British troops during the French and Indian War complaining of how the colonial soldiers kept running away in battle and outside of battle kept crapping in the camp.

The idea at the time of course had been that you give an American a musket and he’d be as good a fighter as anyone in the world – which is true in the sense that anyone can be made into a soldier, and false in the sense that soldiering is a skill, which needs those same 10,000 hours of practice as anything else.

In addition, there’s also a lot of mythmaking and hagiography surrounding America’s participation in World War II.  When I was a kid the Soviet Union were the bad guys, so it makes sense that no one really wanted to talk about the Eastern Front that much.  Sure, I knew that they were our allies in the war, but a student would come away from basic history lessons by thinking that the Americans and British won the war while the Soviets were doing . . . I don’t know, something or other.  Now I’m older, and I know better; the Red Army was losing men by the million while the Western Allies were still trying to get their armies together.  And it’s not that US forces weren’t valiant and brave, and didn’t win impressive victories of their own, but there’s simply a lot more to it than is generally discussed.

Atkinson’s book looks at some of the lesser explored elements of the war, namely the first days of US ground participation.  And one of the first things that strikes you about this book is how the war made the entire world go insane for a while.  Here’s a good example as to why - the first combat action of American troops in the war against Germany was an amphibious landing against French troops in North Africa.  Wait, what?  We started out fighting against our ostensible allies about as far away from Germany as you can get?  Well, remember that the Vichy rump state of defeated France was technically allied with no one and that the Germans allowed it to run the former Third Republic’s overseas territories, because that way the Germans didn’t have to.  In any event, attacking North Africa meant that the Germans either had to fight there or concede the area, and forcing the enemy to do something that they don’t necessarily want to do in a place they don’t really have any reason to be is Total War Strategy #1.  And controlling the southern Mediterranean was strategically important, so off we went.

The British, specifically Churchill, thought that this was a good plan and Roosevelt agreed to go along with it.  Some of the more gung-ho American generals were itching to land in France instead and give the Germans a good kicking right along their borders.  The British were a little more leery of the idea of returning to France right away, perhaps since they’d just had to evacuate off of it not too long before.  Although Atkinson doesn’t come right out and say that the idea of an immediate European invasion was a stupid plan and would have gotten all of our troops killed or captured, he proceeds to show in masterful detain that it was a stupid plan and would have gotten all of our troops killed or captured.

Not that the British come off looking all that wise and masterful.  Churchill was convinced that the path to victory went through Italy and the Southern Mediterranean, and if he and his generals had their way it’s entirely possible that there wouldn’t have been any cross-channel landing at all, or at least not before the Soviets got there, at which point getting them to leave might have proved difficult.  At the very least Stalin and his bunch wouldn’t have been happy about it, since they were coming as close to begging as Stalin ever came to begging for anything for a western front right from the start. 

But that is all in the future as regards this particular book.  There’s another feature about expanding a peacetime army to a wartime army, and that’s the quality of the leadership – the qualities that make a career officer when there’s no fighting to be done don’t necessarily transfer to battlefield effectiveness.  And, of course, the qualities that do transfer to battlefield effectiveness are mostly found in borderline crazy or otherwise unusual people.  Many of the generals in this campaign did not cover themselves in glory and quickly found themselves stateside, doing nothing very much from that point on.

So we have a disorganized mob here, without experience getting all their equipment where it needs to be, under the command of some guys you’ve never heard of and a couple that you have, like some guy named General Eisenhower.  But they get ashore, and they get their equipment, win a couple of battles against Vichy, and then make a deal with Admiral Darlan, the head of the Vichy forces in the area.  Eisenhower didn’t really want to make the deal, but the alternative was to keep fighting the French for no particular reason, and there you go.  Shortly thereafter Darlan got assassinated anyway, and while the assassin was executed for form’s sake it appears that no one in particular missed him, especially at Allied HQ.  Up to this point we’d been killing more of our own men through accidents and mishaps than anything else, and it’s pretty depressing.

Then the Germans showed up and ruined this perfectly lovely undertaking, as they tended to do back in those days.

For a child of the late Cold War such as myself, it’s always a little mystifying to read about a situation where Americans were ever outgunned.  But in this campaign the Allies didn’t always have air superiority, and their tanks weren’t as good as the Panzer IVs and Tigers, and their opponents had been fighting for a while and generally knew what they were about.  There’s nothing that’s quite as good a teacher as combat, and we learned quickly, but our boys were behind the curve.  It’s pretty sad.

At the end of the day the Allies won, of course, scooping up some Axis armies and shipping them across the Atlantic for the duration.  It was pretty harrowing, though.  This story of how the Allies and the US forces in particular went from naifs to the hardened badasses of the Italian and Normandy campaigns is definitely one to pick up if you have any interest in the subject at all.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Magician's Land by Lev Grossman

“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.  That is what Fiction means.”
-Oscar Wilde

It’s appropriate that I find myself coming to this one on the heels of The First Law trilogy, as this rounds out another trilogy of high-fantasy deconstruction literature, albeit one that I’ve generally liked a whole lot more.  Anyway, I’d sort of like to critique this one more than I’m probably going to, but in fairness, the things that I found implausible were the things that I just said made The First Law so unpleasant in parts.  Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but maybe a little implausibility in fantasy literature really makes it work.

First thing – if you didn’t read The Magicians or The Magician King then for God’s sake don’t start here.  The second volume gave little refreshers so that you’d know what was going on, but this one only gives the barest of occasional reminders as to who people, places, and events were, usually foregoing them entirely.  So, go read those first.  But since the events of those novels are so prominent here, I will not have any compunction in referring to them.  I’ll try not to spoil this one too much, but those two are fair game.

Fair enough?

All right.  Let’s recap a bit.  In The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater was introduced to the magical world via a first-class magical education at Brakebills.  After graduation, though, he had nothing in particular to do, ended up cheating on his girlfriend Alice, and in an attempt to salvage this relationship took her and all his other friends on what he assumed would be a light-hearted fantasy adventure in the enchanted land of Narnia Fillory.  However, it turned out that following the advice of a bartender and a talking tree ended up with a desperate underground fight with a bunch of random monsters, followed by an encounter with evil demigod Martin Chatwin (a/k/a The Beast).  They would have died there except that Alice pulled a sacrificial trick which turned her into a demonic being of pure magic, burning her mortality away in the process.  Although Quentin and his pals got credit for saving the world from The Beast, this whole thing was only tangentially related to Quentin at best; Martin’s sister Jane had been manipulating time and space for nearly five decades in order to find someone that could defeat Martin.

So, Quentin learned the hard way that the world didn’t necessarily revolve around his needs, although it was Alice who paid the ultimate price for that lesson.  In The Magician King, Quentin has become one of four monarchs of Fillory, and is still looking for purpose in his life.  He decides that another quest would be just the thing – then gets sidetracked and involved in another quest, since magic is leaking out of all the worlds.  It turns out that his former high school classmate and co-ruler Julia is responsible for that.  She was rejected from Brakebills and ended up searching for magical power; she eventually got it, but at the cost of having her humanity stolen by a rapist trickster god, and furthermore summoning the god in the first place led to the great powers in the multiverse shutting down the loopholes in reality that allowed magic to operate at all.  Quentin actually saved the day this time himself, but agreed to take Julia’s punishment for the whole fiasco, and ended up being banished from Fillory and forever banned from the Far Side, which we never saw but which was described as a magical world’s magical world.  Julia herself embraced her now demihuman-demigod state, but passed out of the story, so far as we knew.

This novel begins in medias res as Quentin Coldwater, now in his 30s, is taking stock of his life as he peruses literature in a chain bookstore in New Jersey and waits to see who, like him, has come about a grey market magic job.  You immediately notice the change in him, and in the narrative style.  Grossman’s grown up too, and it shows, and Quentin is still noticeably himself but without being such a whiny prat.  In fact, the narrative specifically says that Quentin finds himself no longer thinking about everything in relationship to what it means for him in the future.  Instead, he is simply taking events as they come, thinking a little more deeply about things.  It turns out that he’d gone back to Brakebills, and they’d taken him in again as an adjunct professor, where he had a small room, a research project and regular meals, and was thinking about not very much.  How he went from there to getting involved in a heist orchestrated by a magical talking bird takes a little while to explain.

As it happens, Quentin is haunted by his past.  No, really, I mean his ex-girlfriend Alice who is a demon now has been sort of following him around.  He’d assumed that she was as close to dead as you can get without in fact being dead, but is now having to reevaluate this, although whether there’s anything he can actually do to or about her is an open question, since she’s channeling power on a completely different scale than Quentin does, or can.  Obtaining resources to tackle this problem is part of how he finds himself contemplating magical crime for money.

The first book followed Quentin only.  The second followed Quentin and also Julia.  This one has three major perspectives – Quentin, his friend and High King of Fillory Eliot, and a Brakebills alumnae by the name of Plum.  All magicians are pretty weird, and Plum is not an exception, and unfortunately she’s not given a whole lot to do.  She’s not undercharacterized, exactly, but she’s there primarily because of her family relationship to the plot, and she’s also there specifically not to sleep with Quentin, which for some reason everyone asks about.  To their credit, neither one of them seems especially enthusiastic about the idea in the first place.  I suppose she’s also there to show what Quentin looks like through other eyes, which as you might expect is quite competent but a little goofy.  And Eliot doesn’t get that much screen time, but what exists is pretty fun.

Quentin deals with four father figures in this novel – his real father, a quiet, inoffensive man who Quentin believes doesn’t actually like him all that much; Dean Fogg, the somewhat irascible but reasonably well-meaning head of Brakebills; Professor Mayakovsky, the deranged Russian magician living in self-imposed Antarctic isolation; and Ember, the Ram God of Fillory and all-round enigma.  His interactions with these four set the tone for most of the events, and show his increasing maturity as well.  For my money the encounter with Mayakovsky is the comic highlight of the book.  He was previously portrayed as a weird dude, and here he is again, dealing with Quentin on something of a more equal basis this time.  I say “something” because it’s clear that Mayakovsky is the greatest magician alive, and possibly the greatest ever.  He is also more or less insane and drunk most of the time on some sort of moonshine that he ferments out of . . . well, Quentin didn’t really want to know, and come do think of it neither do I.

Before too long, Quentin finds himself in possession of a couple of powerful spells; one of which literally floats down on him as he is hanging out in the space between worlds, the other stolen from the underbelly of Fillory itself.  These spells help make Quentin finally take the remaining steps from adept to true master, and also reflect the increasing maturity of this novel.  In the past, the more flashy aspects of magic have been restricted to fireballs, shield spells, and other destructive sorts of pursuits.  This time, there’s much more subtlety as magic is used to make things, and the nature of magic as a fundamentally creative enterprise is explored for the first time.

There’s also some destruction, of course.  If the first novel was a send up of (among other things) The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the second one did The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, this one picks up The Last Battle.  Early on, Ember announces that the end is nigh, and that Fillory is going to be destroyed.  Didn’t that happen last time, you ask?  Well, sort of.  Fillory isn’t just a magic land, it’s made of magic, so the threatened destruction of all magic in The Magician King would have resulted in its loss too.  But this has nothing to do with that, it’s just one of those things.  It turns out that it’s not the first Fillorian apocalypse either.  And this time, when threatened with the impending destruction of Fillory, Quentin does not immediately leap into action without thinking, and he does not sulk and complain.

He ends up involved anyway, of course.

His intervention and the book in general end up tying up or resolving most of the loose ends that have existed throughout the entire series.  It’s obvious that Grossman is a huge continuity nerd, and in truth I appreciate this.  Little details are nice.  It’s apparent that Grossman loves this world and has affection for these characters, and it shows on every page.

I don’t want to spoil too much or give away the ending, but the thematic troubles I have with this book are related to that same love.  Quentin took quite a beating in the first two books, and Grossman has now decided to throw him a bone here.  There’s a happy ending, which is nice.  In fact it’s so nice that it sort of elides the previous beatings.  If the message of the first two books was believing in magic does not equip you to deal with the realities inherent in existing among other people, the message of this one seems to be stick it out long enough and you’ll get everything you want.  If you’re good enough, you’ll save the world and get the girl – even if the girl herself may not be all that into the idea.  She’ll come around.  For that matter, the events just seem to unfold on rails especially in the last half of the book - keep on plugging and it'll all work out somehow.  It's destiny, man.

In a way, this message is entirely antithetical to everything that’s come before.  But at the same time, this is the best written and most internally coherent of the three novels.  At the end of a fantasy novel, can I really be that upset about a little fantasy fulfillment?  Not too much.  Maybe a little bit.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie

The thing about Tolkien is that he wrote in an age where sincerity wasn’t looked down on as it often is today, and it’s hard to call his work cliché since he invented many of the things that were later used and abused by his legions of imitators.  He was also an unabashed monarchist, and it shows in his work.  When Aragorn comes to take the crown, everyone agrees that he’s the rightful ruler, and because he is a good man the land prospers under his rule.  We don’t find out about his treacherous viziers or hangers-on, presumably because he can see right through such people.  Aragorn himself spent decades fighting battles without becoming jaded or cynical, and armies that he commands were forces for good in the land, and didn’t commit war crimes or random atrocities.

Needless to say, that’s never happened in any real situation on planet Earth, even when the people in charge were generally what we would call good people.  For a while the trend in fantasy literature was to simply ignore this stuff.  However, modern fantasy authors have taken note, and many of them have of late tried to put more realism into their worlds than we typically see in classic works like The Lord of the Rings and its many imitators.  George R.R. Martin is a good example of this; he demonstrates in Ned Stark a classic fantasy hero, a righteous man with an inflexible sense of honor, who immediately gets chewed up and destroyed by the intrigue of even a moderately large bureaucracy.  Martin created a land where even the “good” armies have to forage to stay alive, and that means taking the livelihood and even lives of the peasants that work those areas, and men who make their living killing with melee weapons aren’t above a little bit of robbery or rape if presented with an opportunity.

But for some authors, even this doesn’t go far enough.  Richard K. Morgan explored this territory in his Land Fit for Heroes series, where everything bad in A Song of Ice and Fire is made even more horrible.  And now here I am reading this series by Joe Abercrombie, which takes everything that can go bad, wrong or unpleasant and makes it do so.  I can’t say that I enjoyed it exactly, but I will say that I’m happy to have read it, since now I know exactly where my limit is for so-called “realism” in fantasy fiction.  This far, and no farther.

Like any good fantasy world, this one has a creation story.  The world used to be overrunning with demons, until the half demon Euz sealed them up in the other world, then ordered his four sons to bring order to the human side of it, before leaving himself.  The four then engaged in various internecine squabbles and are also gone from the world.  They did manage to train the order of mages, who are capable of various magic feats and don’t seem to die of old age, but the age of magic is over, and they’re actually beginning to industrialize somewhat.  Incidentally, the “First Law” was made by Euz, and it is “don’t traffic with demons”.  The Second Law was also made by Euz, and that’s “no cannibalism”.  As it happens, this is a practical rule since in this world eating other people actually grants you some supernatural powers, but curses you to be unable to ever stop doing so.  The fact that such laws are necessary tells you a great deal about how much this world sucks.

And indeed it does suck.  As it turns out, the first of the mages, Bayaz, and the second of the mages, Khalul, have this blood feud thing going.  Khalul openly breaks the Second Law and has a legion of Eaters (those that have done the same) under his command, and he’s declared himself the Prophet of God, and has an Empire going on down in the south of the world.  Bayaz himself has formed the Union, which is a monarchy in the north (but not the far north, where the barbarians live, of course), and also has a couple of interesting side businesses of his own.  He originally looks to be something of a typical wizardly sort, but as time goes on you learn that he really doesn’t care too much about people as long as they do what he says, and you gradually discover that maybe some of Khalul’s complaints about him may in fact be pretty well based in reality.

The main viewpoint characters in all of this are Glokta, a former soldier turned government torturer; Jezal dan Luthar, a handsome but venal young officer of the Union, and Logen “Bloody-Nine” Ninefingers, barbarian warrior extraordinaire.  These are interesting ideas for characters, but I personally find that their characterization is not always as deep as you might like.  And there are some other sort-of-lazy touches, like the land of the stereotypical barbarians is called “Angland” and the southern empire is the “Gurkish”.  That’s a little bit hard to take seriously.

There is nonetheless a lot to like about the writing here; Abercrombie is not a transcendent writer by any means but he is workmanlike.  He knows what he’s trying to accomplish and there’s a fair bit of dark humor, but what is really impressive is how he is able to move the plot along.  There is world-building and long conversations, sure, but if he says someone’s going to invade then they invade in maybe two chapters, and you get to the action.  There’s also a bit where Bayaz is assembling some people to go on a traditional quest for an artifact in the far reaches of the world and the whole thing ends up as a huge fiasco, which I liked quite a bit.  And Logen is an absolutely fantastic deconstruction of the barbarian berserker archetype – it turns out that there’s actually quite a bit of downside to murderous rages wherein you kill everyone in front of you.  Who knew?

But there is also quite a bit to not like here, even structurally.  Take Glokta, for instance.  He was captured in a previous war and tortured for about two years, and the narrative continually describes his excruciating and constant physical pain.  He can’t eat solid food because of missing teeth, one of his legs doesn’t work, his spine is crooked, and this government torturer job was all he could get.  But he throws himself into it completely without mercy and is responsible for various deaths of the innocent and guilty alike.  He freely engages in activities that would be considered war crimes while in charge of a besieged city, for no net gain, and he quite gleefully abuses his position to make physical threats against people who have not done anything illegal.  He also enjoys causing physical pain to other people as revenge against the world for not suffering as he does, which is pretty reprehensible.  I will say this though – Glokta does in fact do one nice act that doesn’t blow back on anybody, which is something that no one else manages to accomplish in well over 1500 pages.

In fact, this whole thing reminds me of the Cyberpunk genre in its more baroque phase, where institutions existed for the simple sake of being Evil and doing Evil.  There’s definitely a place for realism in fantasy literature, but this veers so far into the squalid and depressing that it’s equally unrealistic.  The Inquisition that Glokta works for appears to revolve simply around grabbing people off the street and torturing them; all the institutions of the Union are also shown to be appallingly corrupt, racist, and inefficient.  Even with an immortal sorcerer as the force behind the throne, there’s no way that a government this terrible could survive long, with its complete inability to make political decisions, solve crimes, or effectively defend itself.  Case in point, the huge conscript army that gets wiped out to the last man since the corrupt nobles responsible for filling the levies just sent a bunch of derelicts on a winter campaign without adequate weapons or warm clothing.  Yes, that sort of thing can and has happened in the real world, but the thing is that you end up with violent revolutions or external threats at that point.  The Union might survive some of the screw-ups depicted in this trilogy, but probably not all of them and also not as a world power.

At the end of the day, I’m forced to concede that this was successful on its own terms, because it got me to chew through three big volumes and certainly made an impression.  At the same time, I also feel that it was more like rubbernecking at a particularly horrible industrial accident that kept me going out of sheer perversity.  So I don’t necessarily give this one a full-throated endorsement, but it does go places that the genre doesn’t necessarily go – albeit for the occasional good reason.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

Don’t you just hate it when you’re in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, trying to contain a serious fire with your hazardous materials crew, and then you get attacked by ninjas?  And then you get covered in a nightmarish context-free substance, realize that your friends don’t recognize you, and then get shot five times and thrown from a moving vehicle, only to be rescued by a troupe of mimes?  Typical Monday morning stuff, which everyone can relate to.  Oh, I’m sorry, that’s actually totally barking mad.  I apologize.

This debut novel by Nick Harkaway reminds me of a bunch of other things, in no particular order:  Douglas Adams.  Neal Stephenson.  Catch-22Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut.  These are all big hitters in my book and generally good things to be compared to.  But I say “generally”.  Actually, let me digress.  Did you read The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson?  Do you remember the scene where the hapless John Hackworth is in a diner with a high government official and a counterintelligence agent, who know that he’s recently committed some activities which could reasonably be interpreted as theft or treason?  And Hackworth is waiting for them to drop the hammer already?  During this tense scene he decides to look around at the décor of the diner and to spend a couple of paragraphs reading the ingredient list of some sort of hot sauce, which he claims contains stuff like artificial flavors and uranium mine tailings.  Did you wonder why the hell that hot sauce paragraph is in there or even made it past editing?  If you did wonder that, did you smile at the chutzpah of interrupting the narrative flow that way, or just roll with it, or did you decide that the book was an overwritten pile of crap and set it aside?

If you did the latter, then this book is not for you.

There’s something of a sub-genre of goofy, overwrought SF/F absurdist novels.  I tend to like them when they are well executed, and in my younger days I would recommend them to everybody.  I used to be puzzled when people who shared my interests would let me know that they thought Snow Crash or Sewer, Gas, Electric were just too silly to read.  Now that I’m older and have a little more perspective about this stuff, I understand where they’re coming from a little better.  Because those books are silly!  It’s true.  And honestly it can be a little distracting when there's supposed to be some sort of, you know, horrible death going on and the author is doing some sort of end-zone dance in a jester hat.  It can fail horribly.

So here I am about four hundred words into the review and I haven’t gotten around to even talking about the book itself yet.  Well, that’s sort of inherent in the definition of “randomness” – it can’t be described in less space than the material itself.  And it is both very random, and very long.  For that matter, it contains some good – and some questionable - plot twists and turns – so good that to describe them in detail would wreck much of the fun of the book in the first place.  So I will tread lightly.

The novel starts with our narrator describing the post-apocalyptic world and the hazardous materials crew, including his friend Gonzo Lubitsch, sniper Sally Culpepper, utility man Jim Hepsobah, and others.  After a brief introduction to this situation, we then go back in time, back to when the narrator first met Gonzo as a child, and we go through his whole life.  It’s more than halfway through the book before we get back to where we started, and nearly 2/3 of the way through before the nature of the true plot is revealed.  And quite a ride it is.

This is the kind of novel where a British public school boy manages to find time to train with an ancient Chinese master, the head of the Voiceless Dragon style.  Like in every 1970s Hong Kong film, the Voiceless Dragon has enemies who have sworn to wipe them out, although it’s not clear if this is actually true or of Master Wu is maybe just exaggerating a little bit.  When pressed, Master Wu will even concede that he doesn’t know any particular forbidden techniques, but give him a few baked goods and he’ll try to come up with one.

Before too long he’s caught up in an internal security sting and joins the military, just in time to be deployed to a war zone in a fictional Middle Eastern country that everyone else is also fighting over, for no reason that is satisfactorily explained.  At first it’s not much of a war, but tell that to the dead people.  And then the Go Away bombs are deployed.

Up to this point the war story part of the novel is a pitch-black examination of the horror of war, but the Go Away weaponry pushes it clearly into SF/F territory.  These devices, invented by a mad scientist, affect the information content of matter and do exactly what it says on the side of the box.  Only it turns out that everyone else has also been developing these weapons – what’s that they say, there’s steamships when it’s steamship time?  Unfortunately it turns out that there’s stuff left over after you make something Go Away – specifically Stuff, which is matter that desperately wants to have purpose, and will react with your thoughts to become exactly what you are afraid it will become.  Having destroyed the world, the survivors find that monsters are now real, and that some of them look just like people until they try to eat your dog.

Now this in itself would be enough for most novels, but the real heart and core here is the notion of responsibility.  Right at the beginning there’s a discussion about how a mill owner works his guys hard – not because he wants to, but because the mill owner down the street does, and so if he doesn’t then he’ll get taken over and where will the workers be then?  This shows up again and again throughout.  You’re ordered to deploy a weapon of mass destruction by your officer, and by extension, your country.  It’s not you who is doing that, and if you don’t then someone else will, maybe someone not as professional as you.  You’re ordered to move some people out of their homes after you promised them safety – but it really is for the greater good.  Which of these things are ethical?  Would you do them?  Would you risk everything just to make a point and not even change the eventual outcome?

It’s easy to forget the challenging moral dilemmas at stake here, especially given the exciting kung-fu action climax.  Which is totally awesome, by the way.

If it’s not clear by this point I loved this book, actively adored it.  I had a big goofy grin on my face throughout many parts of it and I’m sad I can never read it again for the first time.  But I cannot give it an unqualified recommendation for two main reasons.  First, as I said, there’s a lot of digressions here, and if you don’t like that sort of thing then you will not like this book.  At all.  And not all of the digressions are brilliant; some of them are in fact a little tedious, and at times like that you’re thinking that the author is sort of showing off and not really noticing that it’s not working in this instance.

Secondly, there’s a couple of twists here that don’t so much fly in the face of narrative tradition as sneak up behind them and snap their neck.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they don’t work, because they actually do, so Harkaway deserves a prize for that.  But they are unfair, and clearly violate any number of rules of causality.  If you’re willing to forgive that in an SF/F context like I am, then it’s perfectly all right.

It’s not easy to throw together a coming-of-age story with difficult moral quandaries and wrap it all up in a martial arts throwdown bow.  I can’t even imagine why anyone would have tried.  But I am glad that such a bizarre and delightful thing exists.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross

If you looked up “accessible” in the dictionary, you wouldn’t find a picture of Charles Stross there.  In fact it might say ant. Charles Stross.  If there was a dictionary that described him as accessible it would probably be bound in the skin of some eldritch horror and kept in a vault beneath an armed guard, less an unprepared mortal glimpse it and go mad.  But his blog posts and short stories tend to be insightful and crystal clear, so I read Stross with the firm impression that he’s an experienced wordsmith who, as they say over there, is often taking the piss.  And I take it in the spirit in which I think it’s intended, generally.

I read this on the same trip that I read Ancillary Justice on, both because it was a Hugo nominee and because it was on special in the Kindle store.  I generally liked it; but the parts that I didn’t like were the least Stross-ish, which is not how I usually feel after reading his books.  So I am in the unusual position of deciding that this one needed to be weirder.  Permit me to explain.

This book is a loose sequel to Saturn’s Children, which dealt with the adventures of one Freya Nakamichi-47.  The whole thing was something of a parody, pastiche, or homage to late-period Robert Heinlein stories, especially Friday.  Only the main character’s libido was explained by her being a literal sex-bot in a world that didn’t have any humans left for her to be a sex-bot for.  Or as Stross describes her, an “omni-competent and beautiful yet sexually submissive heroine”.  (Stross pointed out that people who do Heinlein tributes tend to do Starship Troopers period Heinlein, before he started really indulging his bizarre fetishes.)  They’re not robots in the US Robots & Mechanical Men sense, either, they’re built out of “mechanocytes” and need both food and electrical power to keep going, and are based on human neural patterns.  Like all Stross novels, it veers into crazytown eventually, but doesn’t go in for a while and is a good read.  It’s probably the least strange of all the Stross books I’ve read, and if you are a genre fan, or just suffered through some of Heinlein’s stranger works, you’ll probably enjoy it.

Neptune’s Brood takes place several thousand years later, features none of the same characters, and does not tackle the same issues, so calling it a sequel is only true in the absolute most literal sense of the word.  The robots have evolved somewhat from Saturn’s Children and appear to have actually solved some of their societal problems by declaring themselves to be humans, albeit somewhat better designed ones.  Groups of religious fanatics persist in attempting to re-seed the universe with old-fashioned homo sapiens (a.k.a. “Fragiles”), but without a good biosphere to live in, our biological descendants tend not to last all that long, and in fact have been rendered totally extinct on at least three occasions.  Of course the robots are our intellectual descendants in all the important senses, and they accordingly feel that way about themselves.  It’s also worth mentioning that we managed to give them all the negative aspects of humanity; this ain’t a utopia.

Saturn’s Children was a solar-system spanning adventure romp, whereas this one is more about economics.  If Stross read Friday before writing the first one, this time he’s apparently been reading Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber, for this book is really all about cash.

Economics is just as important to the robots as it is to us, and the protagonist of this one, Krina Alizond-114, is an accounting nun; a forked instance of her ancient and somewhat questionably be-ethiced line mother.  Krina is by no means a sex-bot, in fact it’s hinted that she was designed with more or less no interest along those lines whatsoever, although this is not universally true among her sisters.  She is in possession of something of a treasure map and a couple of slow dollars, though.
Slow dollars get explained early and often.  In the future, you see, the robots have trifurcated our economic system and use different sorts of money for different asset classes.  Fast money is what we would call cash these days; you earn it, you spend it, it’s good to have, but subject to macroeconomic booms, busts, and crashes.  Medium money represents land and capital improvements; your house, factories, stuff like that.  The idea is that even in a recession or depression all those medium goods still exist, they don’t go away.  The robots therefore use different money to exchange those, although it’s possible to convert fast money to medium money and vice versa there’s a floating exchange and if you’re in a rush you lose a lot of value.

We don’t really have anything like slow money right now, which denominates the debt of interstellar colonies.  Each colony issues their own and it can take decades to exchange all the cryptographic codes to negotiate them, but on a very rough scale a slow dollar represents the entire GDP of an industrialized world for a year.  Personally having a slow dollar means that you are almost unfathomably wealthy.  Being a slow millionaire like Krina’s line mother is basically can’t even be understood by puny mortals like us.  Becoming a slow millionaire is worth a few risks.

Before too long Krina is experiencing some of those risks; she starts out on something of a sleazy waystation before booking passage on a somewhat dysfunctional church ship.  Unfortunately, a deadly assassin sneaks on the ship with her.  Fortunately, the ship is waylaid by a group of pirates/chartered accountants/insurance adjusters with a letter of marque.  This bunch (whose name is a lovely Month Python reference) underwrote a life insurance policy for one of Krina’s sisters – one who she’s looking for and who’s in on this whole treasure hunt thing.  Their investigation takes them to a world that’s covered entirely in ocean, and by the time they start talking about the lost colony of Atlantis and the communist squid people you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re solidly in Stross territory.

But unlike a normal Stross novel I found myself thinking a couple of times that I already knew this.  For instance, the concept of the “blue smoker” is explained at least twice, and once was enough, especially since the concept of heavy water as a neutron slower is specifically gone over again.  And at another point Krina ends up taking a trip down to the hadean depths of the ocean, a journey which is tedious for her and tedious for the reader.  Stross usually doesn’t wait for the reader to catch up, and yet here I was waiting for him to get moving already.  And then, there's a lot of setup for some somewhat disappointing action payoffs, particularly toward the end.  It would have been worth another twenty pages to hear about an exciting boarding action in space, really it would, especially after more than that much spent in hearing about Krina swimming down, eating a meal, swimming more, eating another meal, et cetera.

Anyway, the central mystery of the book involves the lost colony of Atlantis (strangely enough not the ocean planet).  The slow-money economy is dependent on information, and specifically information traveling somewhat slower than light.  FTL communication or travel would blow the whole thing wide open and lead to a Jubilee of epic proportions, which means that developments along these lines are a common thing for con men and grifters to promise.  There are rumors that Atlantis was close to a breakthrough in this area; there are other rumors that the whole thing was a con.  There are other rumors that it was both.  What is known is that the colony went missing and there are some large balance transfers outstanding, if only one could find half of a private encryption key.  The Atlantis stuff was quite good SF, and also good mystery.  It kept me guessing and in the end I guessed wrong – hey, it happens.

There are some really great setpieces in this novel.  If the whole thing lived up to the Atlantis subplot, or the introduction to the cathedral ship, or the bit where Krina decides to spend one slow dollar at a fancy hotel, this would be one of the greatest SF novels I’ve ever read.  Unfortunately it doesn’t maintain that level throughout.  I’d give it generally high marks anyway, though.  Fans of Stross or SF generally, check it out.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Well, this is one of the hot new things in the SF/F world; won the Nebula, is on the short list for the Hugo, excellent word of mouth.  I was recently on a trip that involved a great deal of air and rail travel, and therefore with some time to do some reading, and it seemed like a good bet.  On the whole, I liked it, but I’m also not entirely sold on the hype.

Ancillary Justice by prolific writer and first time novelist Ann Leckie delves into something of a grab bag of themes and settings from other SF/F works that you have probably read, if you’re a fan of the genre.  The focus is on a character that I’ll call Breq, which is what she often calls herself, even though that’s not really her name and most other characters don’t believe her when she says that’s who she is.  The book introduces itself in medias res, with Breq on a forlorn ice planet, looking for someone.  Then she runs across Seivarden, someone who used to be her commanding officer in the space navy, who’s become a drug fiend and is currently about to perish of hypothermia out there in the snow.

Humanity has spread out to the stars somehow, far enough that Earth is considered extremely distant and not all that interesting, although not mythical.  There are various space empires out there; the navy that Breq was in belonged to a faction called the Radch.  This bunch is a Romanesque empire which is ultimately run by one Anaander Mianaai, who has some sort of backed-up cloud consciousness and hundreds or thousands of cloned bodies to house it.

The Radch are contradictory.  Like the Romans of old, or most empires in general, they’re hard to classify as good guys or bad guys.  Life inside the Radch is pretty good, lots of trade, generally peaceful, mostly tolerant, although there is a polytheistic state religion.  Promotions are ostensibly on merit and anyone should theoretically be able to pass tests to join any profession if they’re good enough.  They’re also gender neutral, to the extent that their language has no gendered pronouns whatsoever.  (Breq refers to every other character as “she” and “her” for this reason, as gender is simply not important to her, for cultural and other reasons which become apparent later on.)

But of course everyone’s got some downsides.  For all their tolerance, they’ve got some serious hangups about clothing – witness the horror that someone might leave the house without gloves, or gloves of the wrong type.  And they also go around bloodily conquering people, and mind-wiping planetary populations to serve as “corpse-soldiers”, which are run by shipbound AIs as a sort of hive-mind.  Their civilization also comes with economic costs, as everyone is organized into feudal-ish houses, with official clientage contracts that go all the way up to Anaander Mianaai.  Complaining about this might end up getting you re-educated and sent off somewhere else.  If you’re lucky.  They've also got the death penalty, and Anaander Mianaai can simply order people executed on a lark.

To some extent though, that’s all in the past.  The Radch stopped expanding about a thousand years ago; there was some fallout after the annexation of the planet Garseddai didn’t go well (e.g., resulted in the death of all life in the system), and shortly thereafter the Radch signed a treaty with the alien Presger, who have fantastically advanced technology but entirely foreign  morality.  The treaty forbids destruction of other sentient life (human on human violence is A-OK!) under most circumstances, and in return the Presger recognize the right of humans to live without being kidnapped from their starships and vivisected without anesthesia, which was apparently a thing that the Presger were doing up until that point.  There are some exceptions in the treaty, but they’re apparently so incomprehensible to a human mind that it’s easier to just never take a chance on killing an alien being.  The lack of conquests has led to a lack of loot and clientage, and there’s also some grumbling that the wrong sorts are getting promoted to high positions these days; some people are saying that the Radch have gone soft and that maybe a return to traditional ways is in order.  What Anaander Mianaai thinks of all this is unclear at best.

Anyway, Breq is on a mission.  As I said, we start on the middle of the mission, and then get some flashbacks while she explains to the reader (and some other people) how she got there, and what exactly she’s planning on doing.  Then the last quarter of the book deals with her doing it, and the repercussions of that.  The mystery is pretty good, but also seems a little bit more self-involved than necessary.  It’s not quite as shocking as the narrative portrays it, although maybe I’m just a good guesser after reading so many genre novels by this point.

There’s really a lot to like about this book, and it’s altogether more impressive for a first novel.  Breq may not care about gender, but it’s something of at least passing interest for most modern readers, and the text itself does a great job of establishing what characters are in fact male, without ever coming right out and saying so.  For instance it’s pretty clear that Seivarden 1) is male, 2) doesn’t recognize Breq, and 3) has a major crush on Breq by the end.  Any of these three things would be easy to just tell and not show, but all of these points arise organically through the writing.  This is most assuredly not easy to do.  And I also really appreciate how referring to every character as “she” makes the reader think and then rethink about the characters as we learn more about them.  It makes the reader consider gender assumptions, and that’s not always comfortable.

And, in general, the writing is strong with no major missteps.  Breq has something of a flat affect, but again, this turns out to be quite justified, as she is arguably not sane, and probably not even what passes for human even among the more liberal interpretations of that in the future.

In fact the book is so generally strong that I feel churlish for picking nits, but I cannot give this book a pure 100% recommendation.  But for starters, it’s the first book in a trilogy.  This is a personal issue of mine, in that I don’t like everything being a series or trilogy.  I’m okay to read long books, if you’ve got that much to say, lay it on me.  It also can be a way to avoid dealing with major conflicts or resolving the major tension in the story in the first volume; you just have to deal with some sort of crisis and then can have a cliffhanger.

I also am not completely sold on how everything just sort of works out for Breq.  Seivarden is literally just lying out there in the snow on this ice planet for basically no reason.  Well, he’s drugged out, and sells her ride for drug money, but other than that it’s a damn big coincidence.  It also helps that he’s got this aristocratic background and turns out to be just the thing she needs to get back into Radch space.  The rest of the plot was actually so well done overall that this contrivance was especially jarring, like the one moldy strawberry in an otherwise perfect quart.

And also it’s clear that Leckie is fascinated about politics, gender identity, theory of mind and choral singing, which is great.  I don’t mind the softest of SF/F myself, as long as the story flows nicely.  But there’s a major plot point involving a weapon, which I really wish had been fleshed out a little bit more.  I guess it takes bullets, but we’re never told what it looks like, so I found myself picturing it as an 1863 model LeMat revolver.  This is one area where a little bit of technobabble would have been nice, since military officers, government officials and combat AIs persist in simply describing it as a “gun” without further elaboration.

I can’t say that I was exactly knocked over by the discussion of AI, either.  There are some interesting points made, but nothing that hasn’t been covered in other works, and usually with more detail.  One character does point out that the AIs are instantiated in planet-destroying warships and how exactly is anyone going to make them do stuff they don’t want to?  Given that, I was entirely amused at Breq’s position at the end of the novel.  So that’s good.

So should you believe the hype?  I wouldn’t necessarily go into this thinking that it’s going to be the very best SF/F novel you’ve read this decade, but it’s certainly pretty good.  I’ll reserve final judgment until the next two are done, but it’s definitely worth a look for any genre fan, and even has some cross-genre appeal.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

Genre fiction tends to come back around to the same sorts of themes and exploring them in (hopefully) new ways.  All You Need is Kill fits somewhat loosely into what I would call the power-armor versus alien locust subgenre, and does it quite well.  And also a cross with Groundhog Day.  And something of an examination of video games.  It’s got some flaws, but it’s fun poolside reading.

This is a subgenre that I’m pretty familiar with, and there are numerous examples over the years.  There’s Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, with its story of the Mechanized Infantry against the alien bugs throughout the galaxy, and Haldeman’s Forever War, with a similar story from a different perspective.  Lesser known is John Steakley’s Armor, which was written by a Texas native and which I’m actually quite fond of.  And of course there are innumerable video games, comic books, tabletop games and other assorted media with armored space marines versus just about anything you can imagine.

But here we are in the near future, with the horrific Mimics having emerged from the oceans to kill all humans.  Okay, maybe that’s unfair.  They’re actually here to xenoform the Earth into a more hospitable environment for some alien colonists from the star system 55 Cancri.  These unseen aliens are huge pricks, by the way, since they clearly considered the fact that their proposed colony world might be inhabited and sent the xenoforming probe anyway, without checking first.  So the Mimics aren’t really evil, just robots.  Or alien robots.  You know what, we’ll just go with alien robot monsters.  Got to be okay to destroy as many of those as you want.  They’re probably not even intelligent, or at least not possessed of general intelligence.  They do resent humanity’s interference with their objective, though, and have evolved nasty, armored battle forms to deal with it.

And it’s also indisputable that native Earth life can’t survive after the Mimics are done with whatever it is they’re doing, so if we want to live the Mimics have got to go.  Which is why recruit Keiji Kiriya finds himself strapped into a Jacket (a powered armor suit) after his basic training and sent into battle against the Mimic horde.  He manages to kill one in his first battle, but then quickly sustains a lethal injury.  As he lays dying, he’s briefly comforted by one Rita Vrataski, the most highly decorated soldier in Earth’s defense forces, a woman who has single-handedly destroyed more than half of the total Mimics accounted for by Earth’s entire military, a woman who operates essentially outside military command and has carte blanche to do whatever she feels necessary in battle, someone who paints her power armor in primary colors so she stands out against the battlefield and everyone can tell she’s still alive.  It’s probably an honor to die in such company, but still a bummer.

Then, the next day, Keiji wakes up the day before his first battle with some bad déjà vu, goes through his day, gets strapped into his Jacket, and is immediately shot dead by an unusually hostile Mimic.

On the third day, Keiji decides that this whole thing sucks and tries to desert.  Only that doesn’t work out for him either.  And after saying “screw this” and suicide don’t work, he figures that he might as well get serious about this whole war thing.  Before too much longer he’s the most battle-hardened veteran in the whole defense force (aside from Rita), although as far as anyone else can tell he’s never been in battle before.

As it turns out, what’s going on here is that these asshole aliens who built the xenoforming machines have some other advanced technology as well.  If some unexpected event – a losing battle, say – disrupts the Mimics as they go about their business, some of them have the ability to send a tachyon pulse backwards through time to warn their previous selves about what’s going to happen.  Then the Mimics can pre-member the bad thing and avoid it, which is why it turns out to be so difficult to actually hit the bastards with air strikes and ambushes.

The one Mimic that Keiji killed the first time was one of these time-bending Mimics, and the resulting tachyon pulse worked on him as well.  Like most time travel gimmicks this is obviously full of paradoxes; it’s left vague exactly how this works or whether there’s really any time travel at all involved.  It seems most plausible that Keiji isn’t exactly time-traveling, but rather experiencing many possible futures before some horrendous wave function collapses and restores things to normal.

Now at this point you may be wondering how exactly we could beat alien robot monsters like the Mimics, with their protected undersea bases and absurd ability to pre-member attacks that haven’t even been performed yet, and their armored carapaces and built in 50 mm cannons.  And the answer is that we couldn’t, we would be totally boned.  But this is a light SF novel, so don’t worry about it – Rita and Keiji will be out there fighting on the beachhead all day long, and we’ll just assume that this will accomplish something.  Somehow.

The very best power-armored-soldiers-versus-whatever novels haven’t exactly been about the armor, the monsters, or the versus.  Starship Troopers was a showcase for some of Heinlein’s (controversial!) political themes.  The Forever War discussed the absurdity and ultimate futility of armed conflict.  And Armor delved into the psyche of someone who has to continually fight all the time.  I wouldn’t put this one up there in the “great” tier, but it examines something fairly interesting to my mind – the inner life of a video game character.

 Keiji isn’t literally in a video game, of course, but in games as a whole you often end up following a protagonist as he dodges every lethal trap, jumps every chasm, and kills hundreds if not thousands of enemies, all while taking little damage.  Usually your allies are next to useless and your character is orders of magnitude more effective.  And you probably either are ignoring orders or simply without them.  Consider Gordon Freeman from Half-Life – a physicist who shows up to work and ends up fending off two alien invasions and the special forces of the US military, all at the same time.  How could anyone do that?  How is it even possible?

Well, it helps if they know what’s coming, that’s how.  By the end of this mess, Keiji has become hardened both physically and mentally into something completely different.  The reactions he gets from his teammates make sense, too.  For someone to be that much better than everyone else doesn’t seem right, it’s not natural – and given the unnatural reason, that’s even sensible.  This may be the most in-depth examination of what it might be like to be the hero of a first-person shooter that I’ve ever seen.  Also, probably the only one.

I’m certainly not saying that it’s without flaws, because it isn’t.  The plot doesn’t really hold up to anything more than cursory examination, entertaining as it might be.  The characterization is nothing special, and while the English translation is more than adequate, I felt that we were probably missing some nuance and the prose itself was nothing special.  Nonetheless, fun.

There’s a Hollywood adaptation of this coming out next month.  In typical adaptation fashion, the role of the 20-year old Japanese recruit will be played by Tom Cruise.  (I know he's got some range, but . . .)  It’ll be interesting to see if they keep the essential core of the novel, or what other changes they’ll feel necessary.

Anyhow, if you have ever enjoyed a book about some people in powered armor fighting some horde of something of other, then this tale of how Keiji Kiriya learns how to kill thousands of robot alien monsters with a tungsten carbide axe will probably be right up your wheelhouse.  If that doesn’t sound like something you’d like, then you’re probably right.  Sometimes, simplicity in theme makes it easy to decide.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Back in the year 1991 in the novel Reaper Man, a tinkerer by the name of Ned Simnel had invented a steam-powered harvesting machine that was somewhat unceremoniously disposed of by Death, who didn’t exactly approve of industrialized reaping.  At the time, Death was working as a farmhand and his preferred method was to scythe each blade individually; it’s those personal touches that matter.  Anyway that’s sort of beside the point since Ned only appears posthumously in Raising Steam; he continued to tinker with steam engines and discovered the wonders of boiler explosions.  Terminally.
But his son Dick is following in his old man’s footsteps – or mostly so, given that he’s really, really big into safety testing before getting everything up to full pressure – and he’s ready to move on to the big city with his new invention and just incidentally kick off the Discworld industrial revolution.
I find myself very torn about this one.  I’ve read most of the Discworld novels by this point; many of them are great, and a majority of them are at least better than average.  But there have been some stinkers in there too, although there is some disagreement about which those are.  If I had to rank this one, it would probably go somewhere in the middle of the pack, but at the same time I’ve got some issues with it that I’ve never had with one of Pratchett’s books before.

Ever since Pratchett has received his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and switched to dictation, his writing has been noticeably different.  It wasn’t clear if that was related to shock or just ongoing mental changes.  The shift continues here, to a larger degree than I can recall in any of his previous works.  It actually reminded me somewhat of the prose style of The Long Earth and The Long War, his collaborations with Stephen Baxter.  So although there’s no co-author credit on this one, I wouldn’t be surprised if Baxter or perhaps Pratchett’s daughter Rhianna polished some of the chapters before they went to press; or perhaps his style has simply changed.  Nonetheless, there were parts here that just didn’t sound quite right.

There’s also something slightly off about the plot, as well.  Simnel moves to the city of Ankh-Morpork to sell his idea – which makes sense, that’s where everyone ends up eventually.  And he manages to sell his idea to Harry King, who has been an important if minor presence in some previous Discworld novels.  He’s got the capital, Simnel’s got the idea, and then they start building a railroad.  Vetinari, the dictator of Ankh-Morpork, can’t let something as potentially destabilizing as this be handled by just anyone, so he puts his number one fixer Moist Van Lipwig onto it.  Oh, and the dwarfs are having a looming civil war.

Unlike most of the Disc books which take place over one particular crisis (with prologues and/or epilogues that occur at various lengths afterwards), this one is somewhat more sprawling.  I’m not entirely sure how long this one takes, but it isn’t less than two years and probably no more than six or so.  Building a railroad doesn’t happen overnight, even in fiction.  Lipwig has to do a bunch of things, like oversee construction, order materials, and negotiate rights of way.

Vetinari motivates Lipwig by threatening to have him killed.  And while that’s technically been the basis of their relationship from day one, it’s a little jarring for Vetinari to issue naked threats like that.  He normally doesn’t.  And here, he does it repeatedly.  Vetinari also personally and openly kills some people in this book, which is not something that I can recall him doing since he became Patrician, although he was an Assassin in his younger days.  This is part of what I am saying about how things don’t seem quite right.

There’s a lot more description in this book of events that the book does not show.  At one point, Lipwig has to fight some guys.  He psyches himself up, but the battle itself is not described.  The aftermath, however, is gone into in some detail.  This is not infrequent throughout the book.  We’re told what’s going to happen, then we’re told what’s happening, and then told what happened.  For instance, Vimes prepares to interrogate some prisoners.  We’re told that Lipwig is impressed by the interrogation.  Then they talk about how good an interrogator Vimes is.  Notably, we don’t get details of what was said.

I don’t use these examples trivially, since they basically mirror other, better scenes in previous Disc books.  Lipwig fought the banshee hit man Mr. Gryle in Going Postal, one of the more exciting scenes in all of the Disc canon for my money.  And Vimes’ interrogation of the hapless dwarf Helmclever back in Thud! was important in examining Vimes’ character.  Those scenes were both detailed and awesome.  In Raising Steam there are a bunch of callbacks like that which require you to know and remember previously exciting scenes in prior Disc books, and there are walk-ons by characters who you will only know if you’re familiar with the series, and who don’t do anything either.  So unlike some previous Disc books that basically were mashups of too many plots, this is almost like a meta-Disc book – it tells you about a Disc book but isn’t actually one.  Or rather, it requires you to bring your own emotional reactions from previous novels to bear in similar situations, rather than actually establishing and following through on its own merits.

What we do get could use some editing.  There are a couple of scenes that are basically verbatim, thematically if not exactly, such as repeated scenes of Lipwig coming home from work tired and then having a nice dinner with his wife.  One such scene is character building, two makes you wonder where the red pencil got to.  And the goblins, introduced in Snuff, continue to be too good to be true.  All of the various species that inhabit the Disc have their flaws and foibles, but the goblins are turning out to have no downsides at all, other than possibly a musty smell.  For that matter, the tension in this book continually gets drained by the narrative reassuring us that everything’s going to work out.  Simnel and King reach a ludicrously mutually beneficial business deal, Lipwig has little trouble getting the better in negotiations, and things in general go pretty smoothly.

The dwarf civil war is also uninspiring.  There have been hints ever since back in The Fifth Elephant that the tensions between the modern dwarfs and the traditionalist dwarfs would inevitably lead to bloodshed.  And I suppose that it does, sort of.  They say it’s a civil war.  But it’s also made pretty clear as to who is going to win – all the Low King needs to do is get back home.  Pretty convenient that there’s a new, speedy mode of transport, isn’t it?  It also helps that the traditionalists have become full-on villains here.  That’s not entirely unprecedented; after all, they did use suicide assassination squads as long ago as Thud!, but here they’re just completely evil and have no nuance.  Dwarfs of good will easily change their minds here.  Dwarfs who don't change their minds are not of good will.  This is a considerable variance with previous novels which have established that the traditionalists do have some valid points even if they do tend to be assholes.

So I approach this one with some hesitation.  It’s not bad, not by any means.  But it just has a sense of wrongness about it.  Even the railroad is a little strange to have in a Disc book.  If they’re having a straight-up industrial revolution then it’s becoming more and more like our world all the time, which is maybe the point.  And it absolutely does not stand on its own; if you’ve never read a Discworld book then this is not for you.  So if you’re a Disc fan and want to have a potentially bittersweet book that’s probably the end of an era?  Check it out.  Otherwise?  Go read Feet of Clay.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Niketown by vern

There’s a quote – attributed to Oscar Wilde but of questionable providence – that “every first novel is the author as Jesus or as Faust”.  Although I suspect that Carter Chase, the protagonist of Niketown, is super heavily informed by vern, he’s just kind of some asshole.  And for that I am glad.

I admit that I love vern’s movie reviews and his classic work Seagalogy, so when he announced on his site that he’d written a novel I was intrigued and perfectly happy to give it a try.  He talks about literature sometimes in his reviews, so I know that he really likes Donald Westlake’s “Parker” books and Elmore Leonard, stuff like that.  And he classifies it as a crime novel, so I was wondering if this was going to be something like The Hunter.  Which is something I can totally get behind, after all.

And it sort of starts out that way.  Carter Chase has just gotten out of the joint after doing a bid of unspecified length for burglary.  We know his passport is almost but not quite expired, so it was less than ten years; it probably wasn’t too much less though since he’s not really used to the ubiquity of cell and smart phones.  So we get to find out a little bit about him, the robberies he used to do, how he ended up in prison in the first place.  We quickly find out that Carter’s an intelligent guy, but as a criminal he’s no Moriarty or even Parker.  Mostly he just grabbed stuff and ran off with it.  And when he finally does get busted, his comment on reviewing the security footage in holding is simply “I was told it would be blurry”.

So he did that time for stealing a bunch of shoes from a Niketown store, and you think at first that maybe he’s out to get revenge on his co-conspirators who fingered him and didn’t go down themselves.  Those guys, incidentally, are also a bunch of complete asshole losers as well.  I’m pretty sure that vern must have actually known people like this, they just seem perfectly rendered.  For that matter they’d all be perfectly at home in an Elmore Leonard novel, and I mean this as high praise.

Then . . . it doesn’t go exactly like I was expecting.  I figured maybe we were going to do a classic revenge tale where Carter gets his own back from these guys, or possibly a big score novel where he gets pulled back into a life of crime.  But no, he gets a straight job as one of those guys who wears the mattress outside on the street by the mattress store, later at a hot dog stand.  He develops an appreciation for avant garde food, although it’s against his initial principles to pay more than $10 for a meal.  Oh, and he’s also crashing in his brother’s duplex, since he was supposed to pick Carter up from prison and then can’t be found, although he left his phone and computer there.  Odd.  Coincidental?  Carter’s not sure, but among the things he isn’t, he also isn’t Philip Marlowe.  Nonetheless, he does try to find his brother.

There’s also quite a bit of culture shock for Carter getting out of jail, not being used to the world around, never having seen an iPod or a smartphone and wondering if they even make CDs anymore.  The real world hopefully isn’t quite this bad, since they’re also putting advertisements on gravestones these days.  When Carter is burying his mom he has to choose which sponsor should appear when people walk by.  The director suggests Pepsi, since they’ve got the best residuals.

It’s certainly not out-and-out slapstick, though.  Carter is afraid he’s an asshole, but he’s also surrounded by assholes.  He doesn’t go around trying to scare people, but that time in the joint has been pretty rough on him.  For that matter he’s pretty good in a fight, too, but the fights he can win aren’t the ones that end up mattering to him.  And maybe a little revenge is in order too.

Throughout this book there are a couple of major shifts in tone and a couple of major surprises.  For a first novel this is handled in probably the best form I’ve ever seen.  There’s good foreshadowing without anything being telegraphed ahead of time.  And some of the stuff is maybe a little implausible, but only to the extent that this is a work of fiction and that there is in fact a point being made here.  In fact I feel like even talking about it too much will spoil the fun.

This isn’t the sort of thing that gets read in upper-class literature classes fifty years from now, but it’s the best damn thing I’ve read in months.  I bet that vern could have written a straight-up hard boiled crime thriller if he wanted to, but he didn’t, and it’s even better this way.  And it’s on sale for $4.99 on the Kindle store right now, so why wait?