Saturday, September 24, 2022

The Space Merchants

Frederik Pohl & CM Kornbluth
Completed 9/24/2022, Reviewed 9/24/2022
4 stars

I first read this book in college for a Sci Fi class.  I didn’t remember a thing about it.  When my book club voted for this book, I was excited because I had wanted to read it again to see what I thought of it now.  Turns out I liked it a lot.  It’s a biting satire on the sleazy world of advertising first published in 1952.  A few parts are dated, but it is still a very accurate portrayal of corporate greed in America. 

The story is told by Mitch Courtenay, an executive copywriter for one of the biggest advertising companies in the world.  He is tentatively married to Kathy, a doctor, who as of late has been avoiding him.  She hasn’t signed the confirmation document that would make their marriage permanent.  At work, Mitch has been assigned the Venus account, heading the campaign to convince people to sign up to colonize Venus.  Up to this point, only one person has been to Venus before, finding it an inhospitable desert, as the scientists had theorized.  However, there is another firm that had originated the idea, which Mitch’s company stole and sold to Congress.  They seem to be out to kill Mitch.  Things turn bad when he is abducted and sent to work as a lower class drudge in Costa Rica and learns what it is like to be a consumer of the products his company brainwashes people into needing.

While the story is good, there isn’t much to like about Mitch.  He’s a company man through and through.  When he ends up in Costa Rica, I was actually happy that he had to work as a scum skimmer in a plant that produces the protein called Chicken Little.  It feels like he gets his comeuppance.  I felt, though, that Mitch was pretty well developed for me to dislike him so much so quickly, and get this reaction when falls from his lofty heights of society.  The women in this book are interesting.  They are pretty reflective of the era, the early fifties, even though Kathy is a doctor.  Yet they have some strength to them, which I thought was surprising.  Most notable is Mitch’s secretary Hester who, like a good secretary of the fifties, is faithful to her boss and his needs.  Of course, she’s in love with him too, but I thought she was a better than a lot of women from the pages of this era.

The world that this takes place in is the 22nd century.  Earth is overcrowded, massive amounts of people are homeless and sleeping in the stairwells of the corporate skyscrapers, fossil fuels are depleted, and all food is synthesized.  I liked Mitch’s discovery of the effects of his campaigns for his products.  Eat a snack.  It makes you crave soda, which makes you crave a cigarette, which makes you crave snacks, all in a never-ending loop of addiction.  Even the coffee, called coffiest, is made to addict you.  

I liked the structure of the US government in this book.  Congress represents corporations, not the population.  It’s like today’s corporations gifting congresspeople for votes, but being honest about it.  And other little things, like the saying that a thousand innocent deaths are worth it if it helps bring the one guilty person to justice.  Pohl and Kornbluth take many axioms of the present and turn them on their head.  You get a chuckle inside, but also feel a little sick when you realize this is where we seem to be headed today.

I give this book four stars out of five.  At just around two hundred pages, this was a quick read.  The prose is pretty spare.  It gets right to the point and keeps you engaged.  I’m impressed with how good a book this was, though I’ve read Pohl before and have enjoyed his work.  Gateway won a Hugo and Man Plus was pretty satisfying.  I’m always a little suspect when two authors write a book, but this one felt pretty seamless.  I read that the two have collaborated quite a bit and have developed a quite a pychic connection when writing a story, easily picking up where the other leaves off.  I think this is a book that should endure.  It’s well written and still relevant today.


Thursday, September 22, 2022

Galveston

Sean Stewart
Completed 9/22/2022, Reviewed 9/22/2022
4 stars

This book started out slow.  Then I discovered it was the third book in a trilogy.  So then it made some sense that I was having some trouble getting into this universe because it was assuming some knowledge.  However, once I got into it and understood the mythology and backgound, I read it voraciously.  It’s quite a page turner, set in a post-apocalyptic near future on the island of Galveston, Texas, where there’s a city within a city full of magic, gods, and monsters.  It’s sort of a microcosmic version of American Gods crossed with the weirdness of a Clive Barker novel.  This book won the 2001 World Fantasy Award.


Josh is a luckless survivor of the 2004 “Flood”, when magic poured into Galveston during some sort of apocalyptic event.  He runs an apothecary of herbs and what’s left of modern medicines, treating the poor as their doctor since they cannot pay for actual medical help.  His best friend is Ham, a very large and strong sidekick.  When Ham saves Sloane the socialite from a beating and rape, he brings her to the apothecary.  It turns out Sloane has been going into the magic side of Galveston to bargain with one of the gods to extend the life of her dying mother.  Sloane continues to visit Josh after each visit to the magic side, known as Mardi Gras.  Josh has been infatuated with Sloane since elementary school and his desire for her escalates.  One day, when Sloane doesn’t return and her mother dies, Josh and Ham are accused and convicted of her Sloane’s murder and exiled to the mainland where they must survive among the cannibal remnant population.  Then Sloane returns, as do Josh and Ham, looking to avenge their accusers.

This plot may sound complicated, and it is, but it all flows as you progress.  There are more twists and turns in the story, even though it may sound like I gave away a lot.  The writing is pretty great, with terrific prose that’s not too flowery.  It was just enough to give you vivid images of people, places, and action.  It made up for my not reading the first two books of the trilogy, providing enough detail of the societal structure to understand what’s going on.  Stewart builds a very interesting, very different type of post-apocalyptic world, even though it has echoes of other books.  It would be interesting to know if China Mieville was influenced by the dual city concept in his The City and the City which was published almost ten years later. 

The characters are not really likeable.  Josh is cold and selfish.  He doesn’t have any friends except Ham who he often belittles.  He likes to show how smart he is and takes everyone for granted.  Then he can’t understand why people don’t like him.  Sloane didn’t grab me either.  She’s rather oblivious to the people around her, being brought up by the woman known as the Grand Duchess of Galveston.  Sloane’s mother basically held together the non-magical side of the island.  Sloane wants her mother to live so that she won’t have to watch her die.  

All the other characters are well-developed.  Ham makes a good sidekick.  There’s the Recluse, the woman who keeps Mardi Gras and the monsters from creeping into the non-magical side.  She’s almost likeable, but has a darkness about her that runs pretty deep.  Even the bad sheriff and the snobby rich people are portrayed multi-dimensionally.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It was pretty close to five stars, but the ending was a little anticlimactic.  And there’s a poker metaphor that Stewart keeps hitting over the reader’s head.  Aside from these two issues though, I thought the book was terrific.  Except for a few spots, it’s exciting and fast-paced.  I was interested in the main characters even though I didn’t really like them until pretty close to the end.  And I really liked that the book stood pretty well on its own despite being part of a trilogy. 


Saturday, September 17, 2022

Dr. Rat

William Kotzwinkle
Completed 9/17/2022, Reviewed 9/17/2022
4 stars

This is a surreal sci fi/fantasy novel that carries deep messages about animal rights, war, and genocide.  At first it’s funny, but quickly becomes very dark in its tale of a hyper-intelligent, yet insane rat that justifies cruel animal testing to the other rats and animals in the lab.  Winner of the 1977 World Fantasy Award, it shows its age with its feel of nouveau sci fi that was popular in the late sixties and early seventies.  At times it’s very boring, with Dr. Rat going over and over his justifications for animal testing.  Other times, it’s brilliant in how it gets its points across.  But overall, the effect is profound.

Dr. Rat is the result of experimentation.  Castrated at a young age, he was subject to tests that drove him insane and made him intelligent.  He has a PhD and has written papers on animal experiments.  He tries to calm the fears of the other animals in the lab by explaining how the cruel torture they endure is for the good of science and the US.  One day, the other rats decide to revolt against their captors and escape from their cages.  They build up an army to subdue Dr. Rat and escape.  At the same time, all the animals around the world getting visions of a great meeting, the subject of which is not known.  All the animals on the all continents begin to gather in huge numbers, laying aside their natural instincts to attend this meeting.  Dr. Rat tries to thwart the revolution as authorities try to thwart the animal meeting.

It’s hard to describe the different aspects of this book.  Dr. Rat is the main character.  I guess he’s well developed because pretty quickly, you get that he’s nuts.  He sings morbid songs, talks in rhyme, and reminds you of the apologists who tried to defend the Holocaust as nationalism.  Throughout the book, we meet other animals, who are hearing the call to the meeting.  Elephants, hyenas, sloths, turtles, dogs, and many others explain what they’re hearing and feeling.  The chapters mostly alternate between the Dr. Rat narrative and that of the other animals, which at first was really confusing, but by halfway through, you get.  I really did empathize with the other animals, hoping for some intense divine revelation for them.  

The prose is good, too.  In general, I liked the way it was written, including the some of the insane thinking of Dr. Rat.  Not too flowery, but good word choices and descriptions.  I didn’t get all of the world building.  Specifically, there was some kind of transmission of the gathering of the animals that was being broadcast via some kind of wheel the rats powered by running.  I never really got it and had to just accept it as it was happening.  But that was how the revolution of the rats was being supported, by hearing about all the other animal meetings around the world.

The message of the book is pretty heavy handed.  You quickly realize this is at least about animal cruelty in scientific testing.  And with the dark tone of the book, it’s hard to actually enjoy it.  It’s a book to be experienced, not necessarily enjoyed.  I give it four stars out of five.  I knocked off a star because in the middle of the book, the ramblings and justifications of Dr. Rat get pretty tediously repetitive.  During those sections, I looked forward to the chapters of the other animals.  The book and its chapters are short, so you don’t have to sit too long with the crazy musings of Dr. Rat too long at any one stretch.  This book is not for everyone, especially if you’re sensitive to animal cruelty.  But if you can stomach it, you’ll definitely have a visceral reaction.


Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Water Knife

Paolo Bacigalupi
Completed 9/13/2022, Reviewed 9/14/2022
4 stars

This thriller was more a general speculative fiction than a full-fledged science fiction.  It’s a near future tale of water rights in an American Southwest of climate change and drought.  I was a little hesitant about this online book club selection because I didn’t care for the author’s Hugo winning The Windup Girl from several years back.  But this one was quite exciting and relatable, after a slow start.  The prose, character development, and world building were all quite good and the ending was a surprise.  I didn’t quite see it coming.  This book was nominated for two 2016 awards, including the Campbell.

Angel is a water knife, a corporate heavy, investigator and some time assassin for a Vegas water lord.  He is sent to Phoenix which is now a dying city as its water is being literally sucked away by California and Nevada.  There he meets Lucy, a dedicated journalist who is trying to find out why a friend of hers was tortured and killed.  Also in Phoenix, we meet Maria, a street tough who is trying to survive the realities of a water scarce inner city.  The three paths cross in various ways when a rich water lawyer is murdered for trying to sell the water rights guaranteed for Phoenix in a 150-year-old treaty between the Arizona government and a Native American nation.  

The plot is initially complicated.  The narrative follows the three main characters in alternating chapters for much of the book.  After a while, their paths begin to crisscross and it becomes clear their destinies are tied together.  Exactly how is part of what makes this book exciting.  

The characters are well crafted.  No one is totally likable.  Angel is downright despicable.  We are introduced to him as he goes into a small city to force the inhabitants out, practically destroying the city to accomplish this.  Lucy the prize-winning journalist is idealistic, living in Phoenix to cover the water situation and the crime and mayhem that results.  While not one of the bad guys, I was not immediately drawn to her.  Likewise with Maria, although she’s relatable.  She’s poor, living day to day trying to make money to survive when every idea she has results in organized crime taking her money as “tax”.  She lives in a world of conflicting values, those of her deceased hopeful father who remembers when times were better and those of her own, developed out of the reality of the day.  While not really likable, all the characters came across very realistically, so that when the climax occurs, it’s completely surprising and believable.  

The prose is really good.  Almost journalistic in style, it reads well, building the excitement as the plot becomes realized.  There are no superfluous passages of descriptions.  Everything written gives you a strong sense of the world and the characters in it without become flowery and boring.  The world building is good, although there were a few words whose meanings I couldn’t figure out in context.  About halfway through, I figured out desal was short for desalinization and not a slang for something else.  Aside from those few things, I really got a sense of the horrible world of Phoenix and the inequities of the rich living in luxurious complexes filled with water basically stolen from the general population.  It probably helped that I lived in Colorado for many years and spent many a vacation in the parched southern Utah.  I love the fierce landscapes of the desert Southwest so it was easy to picture settings in my mind.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  After I realized I had gotten into a thriller, I was able to enjoy the book immensely.  I’m not always a fan of the thriller with its double and triple crosses and noir settings.  But after about the first third, I was pretty hooked.  I was even able to concentrate on finishing the book while waiting to be examined in the Emergency Room for a throbbing torn bicep tendon. (And yes, typing this review with a damaged dominant arm was not easy.)  I’d recommend this book to anyone, with it’s easily accessible plot and not too farfetched dystopian setting.


Friday, September 9, 2022

Zoo City

Lauren Beukes
Completed 9/7/2022, Reviewed 9/9/2022
3 stars

This book is a little better than the rating I gave it.  I was just disappointed in it because there wasn’t much fantasy.  I realize this is an urban fantasy, but the book felt more like a murder mystery with a little magic thrown in.  The magic is interesting, having to do with animals attaching themselves to people, sort of like a tangible spirit animal for troubled people.  The prose is delightful.  The character development isn’t too bad.  It just didn’t add up into an enjoyable reading experience for me.  Nonetheless, this book won a couple of awards, the Clarke and the Red Tentacle, and was nominated for a few others.

Zinzi is a recovered alcoholic/addict who killed her own brother.  Sober now, she has a sloth that has bonded with her.  She has a gift for seeing the connection between people and their lost things.  She makes some money finding the lost items for people, but most of her income comes from running email scams.  When one of her lost item clients winds up dead, she’s a suspect, but also ends up looking for a missing person.  She doesn’t like finding missing persons because it isn’t her gift.  Next thing we know, she’s hired by an eccentric music producer to find a missing teen music sensation.  This could be her ticket out of the slums, known as Zoo City because of all the people with animals.  Instead it leads her into a dark underside of the city filled with murder and a little magic.

Zinzi is a nicely developed, believable character.  I really liked her.  She was smart, funny, and is stronger than you would expect.  I thought, though, that not many other characters were as well developed.  The closest we got was the eccentric record producer.  He was pretty slimy.  I thought he was done well, evoking distaste from the moment we meet him.  There were a lot of other characters, but many of them ran together for me.  I think it was more because I lost interest in the story than because of the writing.

As for the writing, I was quite impressed with it.  From the beginning, you feel like you are getting immersed in an interesting world.  The story is told in first person Zinzi, making you feel like you’re a part of Zoo City.  Where I lost it was when the magic took a back seat to the murder mystery.  Zinzi’s sloth is always around, but the magic really wasn’t.  You get some in the beginning and in the end, but little else.  This was too bad because I liked the general feel of the book, and if there could have been more development of the magic system, I think it would have made the murder mystery part more interesting.

I give this book three stars out of five.  Another one of these where the parts were greater than the whole.  I was expecting more.  I read this book for my in-person book club.  I don’t think I’d seek out the author again on my own.


Sunday, September 4, 2022

Oathblood

Mercedes Lackey
Completed 9/4/2022, Reviewed 9/4/2022
4 stars

This third book of the Vows and Honor series is actually a collection of short fiction culminating in a novella entitled Oathblood.  The novella comes after the first two books chronologically while the short stories take place before and during the first two.  A few of the stories were actually incorporated into the first book.  I actually liked this book the best of the three, I think because the stories were short and to the point.  I also liked how we get a glimpse of the two main characters after their mercenary days are over.  It’s all kind of fantasy fluff, but the characters are pretty memorable and unique, especially for the time of their inception.

The story “Oathblood” takes place after Tarma and Kethry settle down with Kethry’s husband and children.  They start a school for mage and mercenary training.  The beginning of the school is interesting with a wonderful discussion about when acting on revenge is acceptable and when to leave it for the authorities.  The beginning of the story is mostly about two’s interaction with the children and gets more serious when two of children are kidnapped.

“Sword-Sworn” is the first story in which the two characters appeared.  It was enjoyable reading their genesis story.  By reading the first two book, you do get their beginnings and how they met recapped, but having it in its own self-contained short story was nice and entertaining.

Most of the other short stories were interesting because there isn’t necessarily a lot of grand heroic deeds.  In fact, they way Tarma and Kethry approach problems is intelligent rather than brute force.  So some of the stories end a little anticlimactically, but are much more realistic.  I like that there’s a bard who follows them around to try to compose grand epics of their deeds and is constantly thwarted by their brains over brawn approach.  

This being the third installment, I don’t have much else to say about this book.  The stories are good and quirky.  The character development is really marvelous, as is the world-building.  On the matter of the latter, this trilogy is actually part of a much larger Valdemar cycle.  I doubt I’ll read much more of it, but I just might.  I give this book four stars out of five mostly for its completion of a great concept of strong women, one straight and one asexual, their loving bond, and their level-headed approach to righting wrongs.  While I thought all the books were a little slow at times, they were an enjoyable read.


Sunday, August 28, 2022

Ancestral Night

Elizabeth Bear
Completed 8/28/2022, Reviewed 8/28/2022
2 stars

I have been hit or miss with Elizabeth Bear.  This is the sixth book I’ve read of hers for various reasons.  This time it was because it was my book club’s selection.  Upon reading this book, my opinion of Bear hasn’t changed.  In fact, it went down a little bit.  This book was sooooo boring.  It has so much prosy description and self-reflection that after a hundred pages, I didn’t think there was going to be a plot.  Then when it was introduced, it had hardly any forward movement, playing second fiddle to the mounds and mounds of mental masturbation by the main character.  The only reason I finished the book was because it was for book club.  And it took me so long to read this 550 page monstrosity that when I did finish it, it was a relief, but not satisfying.

Haimey Dz is an engineer on a tug ship.  She runs salvage missions of abandoned spacecraft with her ship AI, Singer, and Connla Kurucz, who I think was the pilot of the tug.  They go after a ship and find it has the rendered remains of the whale/dragon-like race whose sentience is contested.  There could only be one culprit, pirates.  This leads them on a big chase with a particularly nasty pirate.  At one point, she disables Haimey’s brain chip and she finds that her real memories are very different from her own.  In other words, she has no idea who she really is.  But the question is, will Haimey bring the pirate to justice or will the pirate bring Haimey to a life on the outer edge of society.

This book is filled with politics and philosophy.  The government, the Synarche, keeps everyone productive via a brain chip of sorts that helps them deal with reality.  The pirates are FreeThinkers and want to overthrow the Synarche and give people freedom and choice.  But are the guerilla tactics, assassinations,  and enslavement the right way to go about it.  These are just some of the things Haimey considers in long discussions with the pirate, as well as in long thoughts with herself.  Haimey also goes off on love and relationships, including the great love of her life, which she may or may not be accurately recalling. The premises of many of Haimey’s ideas and discussions were often interesting, but it always ended up sounding like a term paper.

The characterization wasn’t bad.  I felt like I really knew Haimey, the pirate, and Singer the AI.  I liked some of the other characters as well.  I just couldn’t suffer the lengths of these term paper descriptions and discussions.  This book could easily have been cut nearly in half and still retained sufficient plot and character development to feel completed.  

There is a sequel to this book.  I have no intention of reading it.  I already feel like I’ve read too much Elizabeth Bear, most recently Carnival and Ink and Steel.  I think I’ve given most of her books three stars.  Ink and Steel got four stars.  This book gets two stars (out of five).  It simply did not feel like it had any forward momentum.  Whenever it did move forward, it was derailed by long bouts of tedious prose.  I basically hated reading it from about the fiftieth page to the end.  And life’s too short to read tedious books.  I’m hoping the next few book club books aren’t nearly so bad.