Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Gateway - Hugo Award Review 1978

1978 The Gateway
Frederik Pohl
Read 2/2013, reviewed 4/26/13
4 stars

This book was a surprise to me.  I had read several short stories by Pohl and didn’t care for them.  Gateway had me almost from the get-go.  I loved the construction of the novel:  narration of the main plot, alternating with therapy sessions, interspersed with technical reports and classifieds.  The reports and classified added a flavoring to the novel.  They were not directly tied with the plot, but added to the feel of living on the planet as a prospector. 

The main character was brash, arrogant, and immature.  I can’t say he grows through the novel, but we get to understand why he is the way he is, and what holds him back from growing.  Sometimes the therapy sessions are a little annoying, because that’s where you see his immaturity quite bluntly.  But they are necessary in getting him to a resolution.

The concept of the gateway is really interesting.  I really liked the idea of using alien technology as much as is understood, and having occasional fatal repercussions because of the lack of full knowledge of how the technology works.  It’s an interesting twist, an one of the earliest concepts of reverse engineering which I’ve encountered.  It also explores the concept of a community of people dealing with a high risk profession.  I could particularly relate to the main character’s fear of risk.

I gave this book 4 stars because I was so quickly engrossed in the plot, the characters, the concepts, and the irony.  I more or less saw the ending coming, but was pleased by how it unfolded.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Dark Defiles

Richard K. Morgan
Completed 10/11/2014, Reviewed 10/13/2014
4 stars

I was able to get my hands on an advanced reading copy (AARC) of “The Dark Defiles” by Richard K. Morgan from my SF guy at Powell’s books.  So this review was written a mere 6 days after its publication date.  I felt honored to get to read it ahead of time, and felt quite fulfilled.  It’s a worthy conclusion to the “Land Fit for Heroes” trilogy.  But if I could change one thing about it, I’d cut about a hundred pages. 

 “Defiles” continues the saga of Ringil Eskiath, the gay, outcast war-hero and his two sidekicks, Archeth the black, Lesbian, half-human half-immortal warrior daughter of an alien race of engineers, and Egar the Dragonbane, the straight, berserker barbarian.  The story begins as they realize their journey to find the body of an ancient evil king nearing resurrection seems to be a farce.  But they soon get separated and end up on two different paths toward what seems like the destruction of the world.

Richard K. Morgan has become one of my favorite writers this year.  I read the first two books in the series, as well as his first book, “Altered Carbon”, a science fiction tale.  He writes dark, cynical, intense prose.  His books are incredibly readable.  My main complaint about “Dark” is the length.  Nonetheless, I couldn’t wait to pick it up, and I never wanted to put it down.  He has perhaps the most readable action scenes I’ve ever read.  His characters often wallow in moroseness and self-doubt, but there is always a touch of humor and downright sardonicism.  And even when all seems to be lost, the characters always come up with a darkly humorous thought or statement to add an ironic touch to the scene. 

The book only suffers on the one point, the length.  It felt like the publisher decided that Morgan was now a big enough draw to not require an editor.  As much as I enjoyed reading the book, I felt that there were scenes and descriptions which could have been edited out to make the story go a little faster.  While there are many books that make me wish I could stay in the universe longer, this one made me feel like I had really come to a stopping point with its conclusion.  I got to the end and I was satisfied. 

Like the first two books, “Defiles” is full of sex and gore.  While quite in your face, it always seems appropriate to the story.  The universe Morgan creates is vulgar, and not just in the sense of not being polite, but also in the sense of being down with the common people.  The story is high fantasy, but is grounded in the outcast. 

I think what I enjoyed the most about this book was the interaction with the supernatural.  While there are gods and demons in the previous books, they are more in our characters’ faces than before.  They are all basically tricksters, interfering with humans as a game to achieve their ends.  Since they appear more often, they are better realized than in the first books.  Whenever one appeared, I found myself excited, quickening my reading pace. 

I give this book four out of five stars.  It’s far better than “The Cold Commands”, but it didn’t have the same emotional punch the first book, “The Steel Remains”, gave me.  But Morgan has opened me to a new world of fantasy and science fiction I haven’t really enjoyed much before.  I’m glad I discovered him and look forward to reading the rest of his work over the next few years.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Immortals

James Gunn
Completed 9/30/2014, Reviewed 10/13/2014
4 stars

I vaguely remember a TV series called “The Immortals” back from the ’70s.  It was listed in the TV Guide as science fiction, but I remember being quite disappointed by it being more of an adventure/hunt down a guy show.  In doing my research on James Gunn for the Grand Master challenge, finding what little there was in our library, I thought, what the heck, I’ll try this book, it’s probably better than the TV series.   I was thrilled to find that the book is so much deeper than I expected, telling a story of greed and despair in a near future where only the rich can afford health care, while the rest go without or become forever indebted to hospitals.  Hey, it’s a story about the present!

“The Immortals” is 5 short stories, four from the ‘50s and one from 2004.  They follow the progress of one doctor, Russell Pearce, and the human race as they hunt down the first immortal human, Marshall Cartwright, and his descendants.  Getting a transfusion of Cartwright’s blood will reverse all aging, trauma, and disease in a normal person for about 30 days.  So the quest begins by the richest and most powerful men to capture the Cartwrights and to turn them into human immortality serum machines. 

The first few stories basically begin as adventures, with the main plot being the discovery and pursuit of the Cartwrights’ magical blood.  Dr. Pearce makes the initial discovery, tries to track down Marshall Cartwright, and dreams of synthesizing the component that imparts immortality.  But the stories evolve into something much more profound.  Gunn gives us a forecast of the terrifying future of health care, where hospitals become centers of civilization for those who can afford it, and are under regular attack by the rest of the world which has devolved into sprawling, violent slums where antibiotics have become street drugs and illegal “healers” become the health provider of consequence.

It amazed me that the majority of these stories were written almost fifty years ago.  Having had health insurance through most of my jobs, I had erroneously come to believe that health care only became unaffordable in the last twenty or so.  Gunn’s stories were already predicting this before I was born.  He also foresaw the rise of “healers”, people who take a more holistic approach to medicine.  Rather than just treating the problem, healers treat the person.

What’s most surprising about this book is that the basic plot of the Cartwrights is merely a catalyst for the speculation.   What starts out as an adventure story becomes an apocalyptic vision of the future.  I found myself in awe of Gunn’s imagination and how apropos it is to the current state of our world, fifty years after the fact.  Some of the science is a little dated.  His 2004 short story attempts to rectify this by bringing in current blood-borne diseases and the concept of DNA.  But that it’s easy to let that slide in light of his insight into his terrifying future. 

I’m glad I chose this as my first James Gunn book.  I now have another author I just have to read more of.  I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.  

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Leviathan Wakes

James S.A. Corey
Completed 9/27/2014, Reviewed 9/28/2014
3 stars

October is space opera month for my SF book club.  It didn’t matter what book they were going to pick, I just don’t care for space opera.  I considered skipping this one, but since I figured out I could use it for one of my challenges (The Book of Ones: read the first book of a series), I though what the hell, give it a try.  To my surprise, it wasn’t half bad.

The crew of the Canterbury investigates a distress signal emanating from a small asteroid.  James Holden and a few of the crew take a shuttle to the surface where they find an empty ship.  Another ship seemingly appears out of nowhere and vaporizes the Canterbury.  Left on the asteroid, they find a battery from the Mars Navy, leading them to believe the attack on their ship was from Mars.  Holden broadcasts his findings on an open signal, starting a war between Mars and the inhabitants of the Asteroid belt. 

At the same time, Detective Miller, a “Belter” himself, is assigned the investigation of the disappearance of Julie Mao, an heiress.  As the tensions between Mars and the Belters escalate, Miller finds that Julie may somehow be connected to the war.  This leads Holden and Miller on a dangerous trek to figure out and try to stop the hostilities that are overtaking the solar system. 

What I liked most about this book was the character development.  Most space operas I’ve read are full of two dimensional characters that make it easy to figure out who to cheer for and who to boo.  The two main characters are basically good, but struggle with their own demons and bad decisions, making for interesting angst. 

Miller, while being a fairly typical noir-pot-boiler detective, has a lot of complexity.  Besides the usual angst, he finds himself obsessed with finding the heiress and falling in love with her specter, at the same time questioning his own motives and relationship to the other Belters calling for the blood of the Martians.

Holden is a good guy.  He believes in the truth.  But it seems like every ship he comes into contact with seems to get destroyed.  Whenever he reports back the truth, as he sees it, of who blew up what, the violence of the war spirals toward new heights of depravity.      

I also liked the mystery of the alien goo that keeps popping up around the asteroid belt.  Sort of a variation on “The Blob”, it turns people into “vomit zombies” and leaves them a mass of writhing gelatinous filth.  Combined with the political chaos of the solar system wide war and the search for the heiress, it made for quite an exciting page turning plot point.

Though not a great novel, this is a pretty enjoyable read.  The moral dilemmas facing the main characters made for some interesting interpersonal relationships.  I liked that the book wasn’t as oppressively heavy as a C.J. Cherryh opera and read better than most of the entries I’ve read in the Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga.  I don’t plan on reading the rest of the Expanse trilogy, but I don’t regret reading its first entry either.  I give this book a nice middlin’ three stars out of five.  

Friday, October 3, 2014

Exquisite Corpse

Poppy Z. Brite
Completed 9/12/2014, Reviewed 9/21/2014
5 stars

Poppy Z. Brite only spent about a decade or so writing horror.  “Exquisite Corpse” is her last full length horror novel.  It is the terrifying and grotesque tale of a necrophiliac and cannibal who, well, hook up.  While her two earlier novels lushly escort you through accessible, gothic themes and plot, “Corpse”, pardon the expression, bites you with tight, efficient prose and drags you kicking and screaming through the darkest, goriest nightmare you will ever have.  If you don’t want nightmares, jump right to my final paragraph.  If you’re brave, and think you can stomach the full review, read on.

What amazed me the most about “Corpse” was how quickly Brite gets the reader into the heads of the serial killers.  She does it by introducing you to Andrew Compton while planning his escape from prison and reflecting on his career killing the teenage detritus of British society and having sex with their dead bodies.  Jay Byrne, on the other hand, is at-large in New Orleans, having sex with the eviscerated bodies of runaways and tourists then eating them.  Jay is in a little crisis, wanting to eat his teenage drug dealer, but afraid of breaking his own rule of not selecting locals for dinner.  As much as you don’t want to be there, within a few chapters, you are part of the angst of these two wretched creatures, and barely able to contain yourself with the anticipation of how they are going to meet.

The third corner of this dark triangle is Tran, the drug dealer.  Having already disappeared on his HIV-positive lover after their tests came back different, he runs away from home when his parents find his old love letters.  Young and na├»ve, his poor judgment easily drops him in the lap of the two monsters.  Watching him make bad decision after bad decision is like being a little kid watching Frankenstein, feeling the setup, covering your eyes, saying “No, no, no” but still peeking through your fingers to watch it happen. 

I have to mention the last major character of the book, Luke, the HIV-positive lover.  He has a show on a pirate radio station where he releases all his rage about his AIDS diagnosis.  It’s just as brutal and horrific as the content of the story.  “Exquisite Corpse” was written in the 90’s.  I think it’s safe to say that what this book really does is give us the most gruesome metaphor for that horror that eviscerated a huge part of the gay population.  Brite was angry, and this is how she let you know it.

Throughout the book, Brite gives you graphic, horrendous accounts of the murder, mutilation, necrophilia and cannibalism.  It is hard to believe that someone could actually imagine this stuff.  But she does, conveying it with nerve-wracking, engrossing prose.  That’s what’s so masterful about Brite.  She writes about horrible things and makes you want to read it to the end. 

In all honesty, I have to give this book five stars.  It scared the pants off me, and I couldn’t stop reading it.  However, I do not recommend this book to everyone.  You need a strong stomach for unbelievably graphic sex and violence.  The whole time I was reading it, my pulse was rapid and my breathing short.  I often had to put the book down, get up, and drink a glass of water, just to be able to pull myself out of the altered state in which this book put me.  During the first evisceration, marveling at the tight, almost beautiful prose describing this horrific process, I was reminded of a review of the movie “The Exorcist” in our local Catholic Archdiocesan newspaper back in the 70’s.  The already biased critic said that it was a topic that should not have been put on film, but admitted, “It’s an excellent production of a bad movie.”  That’s what “Exquisite Corpse” is, an amazing, riveting, terrifying book about very, very evil things.