Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Fifth Head of Cerberus

Gene Wolfe
Completed 9/28/2018, Reviewed 9/28/2018
4 stars

This was a hard book to read and a tough one to rate.  The prose is masterful.  No word seems randomly picked.  The story and the form however, are really complex.  The book is a collection of three novellas that take place on the twin worlds of St. Anne and St. Croix.  There is a common character in the three stories.  Dr. Marsch is an anthropologist who is a minor character in the first, the writer of the second, and the main character of the third.  The stories seem unrelated until well into the third novella when things start to tie together.  It should be noted that the first story was published first.  Wolfe’s publisher then commissioned him to write two more related novellas so it could be published as a whole book.  This result is this heady mix of unreliable narrators, hallucinatory journeys, and what seems to be intentional obfuscation to create a powerful but difficult experience.

The titular story is the first.  It’s about a boy who lives with his brother, father, and aunt in a high-class brothel.  He seldom goes out and is tutored by a robot.  Known to us only as number five, his father begins experiments on him that involve psychological tests and drugs.  Five and his brother David meet a girl who hangs out with them and they get involved in some light stealing.  Then there is a twist to the story which throws Five and David’s lives into chaos.  About this time, Dr. Marsch shows up looking for the author of Veil’s Hypothesis.  It’s about the aboriginal people of St. Anne and what may have happened to them when the first colonists from Earth arrived. 

The second story, called “’A Story’ by John V. Marsch” is a tale about the aboriginal peoples of St. Anne.  It is about one such Aborigine, John Sandwalker, who is looking for his twin who was separated at birth.  He meets the Shadow Children, who you get the feeling may have been from Earth, and were perhaps the first colonists to arrive.  Then he gets captured by the marshmere people and once again, there are strange twists of fate.

The last novella is V.R.T.  It is a collection of writings and recorded interviews by and with Marsch.  He has captured on St. Croix and is accused of being a spy from St. Anne.  The form of this story is that an inspector is randomly reading through the writings and listening to the tapes to glean from them what Marsch’s true mission was.  They don’t believe he is an anthropologist from Earth.  Through his research, we get more on the quest to discover the truth about the Aboriginal people, as well as some topics from “Fifth Head”.  This may be the toughest of the three to read because it is not a straightforward narrative.  It jumps in time and content making for a tough experience even if you are paying attention.

Reading this book takes a lot of energy.  It’s hard to tell where the first two novellas are going until the end.  During the first one, I thought there was no plot for most of it, until the end.  During the second one, there seemed to be a plot, but between his dreams and the mysterious Shadow Children, it felt like hallucinatory journey.  By the third story, I was pretty lost, so I cheated.  I read a slew of reviews.  I found out that this story helps tie together the first two, so I read it with a little more aplomb, and got the big payoff. 

I give the book four stars out of five because to write this way takes a lot of talent.  You just can’t sit down and write a book like this.  It takes much careful planning and intention.  Many reviews I read either gushed over the book, or described a horrific reading experience.  I myself felt lost, but relished in the amazing prose and tried really hard to pay attention.  I think this is a book that takes multiple readings to get all the nuances and hints in the first two stories.  You can’t be tired when you read it. 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories (Transgender Fiction)

Sandra McDonald
Completed 9/23/2018, Reviewed 9/23/2018
4 stars

This is a very interesting and entertaining collection of stories that run the gamut of the LGBTQ experience.  The stories are literary, yet have fantastical elements to them.  And there’s an obsession with firefighters.  What really struck me about these stories was that I was able to get into most of them very easily.  Sometimes with short fiction, it takes the whole story to get into it, but I found that the stories grabbed me right from the start and most of the characters instantly likeable or relatable.  Some of the stories are standalone and some of them are related.  They all take place in the same universe, mostly around a city called Massasoit.  They take place in different times, but in the end story, all the stories more or less come together.  My favorite of the stories were the Diana Comet stories, of which there were three where she was a main character.  But almost all them were fun and inventive.  This book won the Lambda Literary Award for Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror in 2011.

I think my favorite story was “Diana Comet and the Lovesick Cowboy”.  Diana Comet is a transgender woman.  She runs a home for wayward children in Massasoit where she educates them and inspires them to be curious and expressive of themselves.  She follows up on all the children that have been placed in homes.  There’s one child living in cowboy country from whose adoptive parents she hasn’t heard anything for a time.  She hires an alcoholic, closeted gay cowboy to take her to the ranch where the boy is living.  Diana has a knack for putting herself in the lives of people who need her wisdom and insight, and this cowboy is no exception.  On the way, with Diana’s help, the cowboy has epiphanies that makes him question his own internalized homophobia and negative self-esteem. 

Another favorite was “The Fireman’s Fairy”.  The firefighters of Massasoit have magical creatures as mascots.  Steven Goodwin has just graduated from firefighters training and is assigned to Engine Company 13.  Steven wanted to be assigned to the company that had a fierce dragon as mascot.  Instead Company 13 has a bisexual fairy as a mascot.  Bob the fairy is pretty annoyingly overzealous and has a thing for firefighters, male and female.  Needless to say, he gets under Steven’s skin.  But even worse is Steven’s own PTSD stemming from his time in the military.  Can Steven learn to appreciate Bob the way the other firefighters have?

This universe of Diana Comet’s has a goddess and/or goddesses who manifests themselves in various ways.  One story that was particularly interesting was “Fay and the Goddesses”.  It’s about a little girl who has a gift for singing.  In the religion of her father and uncle, the Stern Loving Mother demands that gifts such as her beautiful voice be offered back to the Mother.  However, in the religion of her mother’s mother, the Water Momma only demands that you forego luxury.  Fay must choose between her voice and luxury, the love of her father and uncle or her grandmother, and the choice is not an easy one.

These are only three of the stories, but I liked most of them a lot.  There were only two that I didn’t quite relate to, but they were still good stories.  There are fourteen stories in all with common threads through some of them.  And as I said, they all sort of tie in together in the last story.  The book should be read from beginning to end, rather than just the individual stories, for the full effect.  I give the book four stars out of five.  It’s funny, insightful, and thought-provoking.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Children of Hurin

JRR Tolkien
Completed 9/21/2018, Reviewed 9/22/2018
4 stars

I feel like I’ve written about this book many times before.  It’s because I have, when I read the History of Middle Earth Series, TheUnfinished Tales, The Book of Lost Tales, and The Silmarillion.  This book is a full story version of the tale of Turin, son of Hurin.  It brings together the different versions that Tolkien wrote into a single story.  It’s a great tragic tale of doom.  I like the tale a lot, but it is a difficult read.  It’s written in a very old style of prose, with words we don’t use much anymore and complex word order.  It definitely feels like you are reading ancient lore. 

This is one of the earliest stories in the First Age canon.  It begins with Hurin going to Gondolin and then fighting in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears.  Hurin is captured by Morgoth the Dark Lord and cursed to sit in a chair and with great sight forced to watch the doom of his family unfold.  Back home, the town of Hurin’s family is overrun by evil men and though they are afraid of the family of Hurin, they make everyone else their thralls.  In fear of what these men might do, Morwen, Hurin’s wife, sends Turin to Doriath to live and be raised by the elves.  When he nears adulthood, he accidently kills King Thingol’s number one advisor.  Fearing the wrath of Thingol, he flees to live as a bandit in the woods.  Tragedy after tragedy unfolds as Turin and his family make bad decisions. 

The plot is very depressing and there is no humor or comic relief in the book.  Everything is deadly serious.  The plot and the difficulty of the prose do not make for a quick read.  You get the feeling that every word was carefully selected to convey the sense of doom.  Even though this book is short, it took me about five days to read.

Aside from the toughness of the prose, I think another think that makes this a tough read is that Tolkien throws a lot of names at you through the book, especially at the beginning, with the story of Hurin and his eventual capture.  Tolkien assumes you are familiar with the mythology.  He throws in the names of the gods and some of the more famous elves.  Having read so much of the mythology in the Tolkien’s other works, I was familiar with them.  But even I had some trouble remembering who was who.  Christopher Tolkien provides an introduction that explains some of the names being used, including the different names for the Elves and some of their geneology.  It was a good refresher for me, though I still found some of the names to be confusing in the actual text of the book. 

I give the book four stars out of five, knocking off one star because of the difficulty of the prose.  Also, after reading the story of Turin so many times, I wasn’t drawn into the despair of the doom.  I knew what was coming, so I didn’t become as emotionally involved as I think I would have reading this for the first time.  I think if you want to read this book, you should read the Silmarillion first, to get a handle on the mythology of Tolkien’s universe. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Philip K. Dick
Completed 9/16/2018, Reviewed 9/17/2018
4 stars

There is so much more to this book than the movie “Blade Runner”.  Despite being a short book, there’s interesting world building.  There’s television, religion, and an actual electric sheep.  And of course, there’s chasing after androids.  The book is a fascinating look into the creative powers of PKD.  He managed to pack into this small book a post-apocalyptic world with a decaying ecosystem and nuclear fallout.  I wish I had this book in my science fiction class in college because it there’s so many things that could be discussed in a group.  Being short, there seemed to be a couple of loose ends that weren’t neatly tied up, but overall, the book had its intended effect on me.

Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, chasing after rogue androids.  His latest assignment is to find and kill six of the newest model androids that have returned illegally from Mars.  He’s also enamored with live animals.  In this future world, many of the earth’s species are going or have gone extinct because of the radiation of the last war, World War Terminus.  It becomes prestigious to own a live animal, rather than an electric one.  Deckard has an electric sheep, but is always going by the pet store, drooling at the outrageously expensive animals for sale, like a thirty thousand dollar ostrich, or something more reasonable like a goat with a five year payment plan. 

This future has its share of gadgets.  There’s the mood organ with which you dial one of hundreds of options to put you into that mood, from ecstacy to severe depression.  There’s also the device (the name of which I can’t remember) that lets you experience the martyrdom of Wilbur Mercer, the founder of the religion Mercerism.  Through it, you can share all the joys and pains of all the other people connected to their device. 

The television of the future has only one channel and one program, a sort of Today Show/Tonight Show that’s hosted by the comedian Buster Friendly.  The show has guests and features weather reports about the state of fallout and pronouncements on what’s real and what’s fake. 

All of these things, the animals, the devices, the television, create an interesting future of consumerism and mood-altering to help people who must stay on Earth.  Many people have left the dying Earth for Mars to avoid repercussions from the fallout.  Those that remain are workers like Deckard, and chickenheads, people whose bodies or minds have been affected by the fallout.  Staying on Earth is depressing business, so people believe in Mercerism, use the mood organ, and spend all their money on animals.

There’s quite a complex morality play at the heart of Deckard and his business.  He often questions his actions as a killer of androids.  Androids don’t have empathy.  The test he uses to determine if someone is an android or not is a series of questions designed to determine if the person in question has empathy.  At one point, he asks himself a few questions to determine if he is an android, because he has lost empathy for the androids. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  The basic plot is exciting, but as you can probably tell, I really dug the animals, gadgets, the religion, and the ambiguous morality.  I usually don’t notice plot holes, but there were a few.  The book could easily have been longer to deal with some of these loose ends.  The prose is not awesome, but it reads like most of the PKD books I’ve read so far, terse being a good word for it.  But also like his other works, the prose style fits this noir-ish story.  Despite having “Blade Runner” deep in my psyche, I was able to experience the excellence of this book in its own right.  I didn’t even have Harrison Ford as Deckard distracting me. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

I Am Legend

Richard Matheson
Completed 9/14/2018, Reviewed 9/14/2018
5 stars

I first read this book in college, during summer break.  I really loved it, but it was so long ago, I didn’t remember it.  Upon second reading, it’s hard to imagine the book without thinking about one or several of the movie versions coming to mind.  In a way, it’s fortunate that the two movie versions I saw were not like the book, because it allowed me to have a new experience of the book.  To me, the book was about surviving amidst despair and hopelessness.  It’s a character study of what it means to be truly alone. 

Robert Neville is the lone survivor of a plague that turns people into vampires.  He travels around the neighborhood by day, killing vampires as they lay comatose, and spends the nights barricaded in his house as the remaining vampires try to break in to drink his blood.  He struggles with motivation to stay positive, plummets into alcoholism, then finds a way out by studying the germ that causes the vampirism.  The book is told in third person limited.  We only know what Neville is thinking and doing. There are some flashbacks to the days when the plague was taking hold, focusing on what happened to his wife and daughter.  But most of the book takes place in Neville’s present, the near future, well the 1970s, which was the near future for the time the book was written. 

There’s no dog companion like there is in the most recent version of the movie, but there is a scene with a dog that is quite astounding.  Neville finds a feral dog.  The dog runs away at first, but Neville lures it with food, milk, and water.  The significance of this scene is his response to finding something else alive after being alone for so long.  He’s completely overjoyed at the prospect of having a companion.  When he calls to the dog, it’s the first time he’s heard his own voice in over a year, and its foreign-ness shocks him.  Then he’s impatient with the dog’s skittishness.  He only slowly wins over the trust of the dog, and even that is tenuous.  Later in the book, he meets a woman, Ruth.  The meeting of her is almost a parallel to first meeting with the dog.  It would almost be comical if it the tone wasn’t so devastating.  I can’t go into their relationship because it is near the end of the book and that would be too much of a spoiler.  You’ll just have to read it.

This book is considered a classic in the horror and science fiction genres.  To see why, you have to eliminate sixty years of the development of vampire and post-apocalyptic stories.  It’s like thinking of Lord of the Rings and the fantasy genre.  It may seem archaic, but you have to remember that it came before so much of what we now know of as genre fiction.  I Am Legend came about when vampire stories were mostly about Dracula.  Matheson plays with the tropes like garlic, crucifixes, and wooden stakes, but he makes them his own when he has Neville studying them to understand their affect on the germ.  This book was one of the first of its kind and I would say many of the post-apocalyptic/plague novels and movies of today owe a lot to it, especially, the zombie genre. 

I give this book five stars out of five.  As my regular readers know, I usually only give five stars to books that affect me at a deep, emotional level.  It gripped me where it really hurts, in the part of me that often feels alone and isolated, with the despair and hopelessness that it can cause.  While I can’t say the book drove me to depression (thanks to the miracle of better living through chemistry), it pushed several buttons and the world appeared a little grayer. 

Friday, September 14, 2018

All These Worlds

Dennis E. Taylor
Completed 9/10/2018, Reviewed 9/10/2018
3 stars

This is the third book of the Bobiverse Trilogy.  It was a fitting end to a fun series.  It’s filled with action, adventure, and even some romance.  Yes, one of the Bob’s falls in love.  It’s more of the same as the second book, kind of a comic-space opera.  And it still suffers from the lack of intensity of the first book, though it makes up for it in an action-packed ending.  It kept my interest and I had a hard time putting it down at the end of the night. 

Again the book picks up a little after the second book, For We Are Many.  The first Bob is kicked off his planet of the Deltans, but returns to live with them as a Deltan android.  Androids construction has become so advanced that a Bob can make a lifelike model of anything and transfer his entity into the android, while still controlling his primary ship and other drones.  Only Archimedes, the Deltan with whom he had initial contact, knows his identity.  Everyone else believes he’s just another Deltan named Robert.  This is one of the best plotlines.  He can still guide the Deltans in a quiet manner, not giving them profound knowledge, but just easing them gently along the way. 

Riker, now known only as Will, is still helping the humans from Earth leave their dying planet, but it is complicated by the Others.  The Others are the species that invades planets, eating the inhabitants, and scavenging the planet for its natural resourses so they can build their new Dyson disk home world (think Ringworld).  Several Bobs tried unsuccessfully to stop the Others from ravaging one planet, and in the course of events the Others figured out who they were and where they came from.  So their plan is to invade Earth next.  There are still fourteen million inhabitants left on Earth and getting them all off before the invasion is tricky business.

My other favorite Bob is still Howard, the one who falls in love with a human woman on Vulcan.  Her husband dies and she and Howard grow closer together.  With the android technology, he can now pal around with her physically.  They fall deeply in love, and he tries to convince her to have her consciousness uploaded to a computer as well when she dies.  Her children are not too keen on the idea and it has sort of scandalized the planet. 

I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s good.  It’s a lot of fun, but when all is said and done, it’s fluff.  It’s very entertaining, but nothing earth shattering.  The quick cuts began to wear me out a little.  It makes for fast reading, but in the end, I just wanted to get on with each plotline.  And there are a couple of plotlines that I didn’t mention.  It would make a great television series, or trio of movies.  I highly recommend this for most people because of the sheer fun of it.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Blackfish City

Sam J. Miller
Completed 9/5/2018, Reviewed 9/9/2018
3 stars

I was indifferent to this book, neither liked it nor disliked it.  It had many parts that were interesting, but it simply didn’t come together for me.  The premise is interesting, a city built in the arctic because climate wars ruined the globe.  And it has a woman who comes to the city on an orca with a polar bear.  I felt like it started out well, with four different points of view narrating the story, but when it all came together, it just didn’t gel.  This was disappointing for me because I’ve read a lot of the author’s short stories online, and really liked most of them.

The city, Qaanaaq, is built in the arctic and is powered by geothermal activity.  It’s shaped like an asterisk with eight arms.  Each arm is a subdivision of the city, and has different economic structures.  One is a really wealthy arm, another is very lower class.  The city is itself decaying politically and economically, as the government is not very strong.  There is a new plague going through the city, the Breaks, which seems to be transmitted sexually.  Then a visitor comes to the city, a woman riding an orca with a polar bear for a pet.  She’s seeking someone she lost years ago, and leaves destruction in her wake. 

The book is told from the points of view of four different characters.  All of them started out interesting.  There’s Fill, a spoiled rich boy who has just been diagnosed with the Breaks.  Ankit is an elections assistant and government worker who helps keep the city going.  Kaev is a fighter with mental illness issues who loses bouts in order to get paid.  Soq is a gender-queer messenger who straddles the cities underbelly.  About halfway through the book, all the stories come together to create a linear story line.  The story is also punctuated by readings about the city from what I think was basically like a podcast, giving you background on the how the city developed and how it’s falling apart.

I liked the individual stories in the beginning.  They were a little hard to follow, but Miller created four strong and very different characters.  Each one has a revelation as they meet the woman with the orca, the orcamancer.  Unfortunately, I can’t go into too much more detail because it gives away the ending.  But I can say that the bonding with animals is hereditary and enhanced by nanobots.    

I really don’t have much else to say about the book because it just didn’t grab me.  I give it three out of five stars, leaning a little more to the two and half star side, though I don’t give half stars for my reviews.  The prose is decent, but I found the author’s writing much better in his short stories.  The ending didn’t grab me, which is interesting because I’ve read a lot of reviews where the readers found the opposite, the beginning being hard to get into but really knocking their socks off in the end.  The author’s latest book, The Art of Starving just won the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.  I’m definitely going to give that book a try, and continue reading his short fiction. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

For We Are Many

Dennis E. Taylor
Completed 8/31/2018, Reviewed 9/1/2018
3 stars

This is the second book in the Bobiverse series.  It follows the Bobs forty years after he’s been made a sentient computer on a space probe searching for habitable planets for the human race.  What made the first book for me was the beginning, when he is transitioning into being a disembodied intelligence.  This book is still a lot of fun, with all the Bobs scattered across the near part of the galaxy doing various things.  It just doesn’t have quite the power of the first book.

This book picks up right after the first.  The original Bob is playing sky god to a sentient species on a distant planet, the Deltans, watching them evolve intellectually now that he’s taught them how to make spearheads and knots.  However, now that they’re safe from the gorilloids, they have a new enemy to battle, giant flying predators.  Another couple of Bobs are at the planets Vulcan and Romulus, helping humans develop their new homes.  On Vulcan, the humans have a major predator, semi-intelligent raptors, not unlike those from Jurassic Park.  One of the Bobs there, Howard, is falling in love with a woman, while, of course, he’s disembodied.  Riker, with a few Bobs, is on Earth, helping the humans there escape from the nuclear winter that’s slowly destroying the planet.  And a group of Bobs have discovered an intelligent hive mind species that is destroying planets for food and resources. 

There’s a lot going on, but it’s easy to follow allow the plot lines.  The book is written well, as a fast paced adventure.  It’s easy reading with lots of dialogue.  The chapters are short, jumping back and forth between the Bobs.  It’s almost written in a movie-like style with lots of cuts to keep the action going.  The plots are all common tropes, but the presentation and basic premise is what keeps it interesting.

One of my favorite parts was the Bob-Moots, gatherings of Bobs to discuss what’s happening in different parts of the galaxy.  One of the Bobs has solved simultaneous interstellar communication, so it’s easy to have this sort of conference.  They all use virtual reality, so the Bobs are all gathered in a room looking alike with the exception of hair styles and facial hair. 

Another part I liked was with Howard and his longing for romance with a human woman.  It coincides with the development of an avatar in which he can transfer his consciousness and experience, so he can appear physically to people.  It’s still a little mannequin-like but does the job.  Back with the original Bob, he’s using the avatar to appear and interact amongst the Deltans.

I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s pretty good, fun, and exciting.  It just doesn’t have the same intensity the first book had.  I’d also recommend reading the books a little more closely together than I did.  I waited a couple of months and lost track of some of the personalities.  It took some time to get back into the swing of the book. 

Saturday, September 1, 2018


Karin Lowachee
Completed 8/29/2018, Reviewed 8/30/2018
4 stars

This is a good, disturbing book.  It’s a look at war and child abuse through the eyes of a boy who’s recruited by pirates.  It’s tough to read in parts because of this content.  The writing style however is wonderful and it’s a fairly easy read.  This is the third book of a trilogy.  I didn’t realize it was such but the novel stands alone pretty well.  It won the Gaylactic Spectrum award for positive LGBTQ images in science fiction and fantasy back in 2006.  However this content is obscured by the sexual abuse the protagonist endures.

Yuri lives on a moon that was once occupied by aliens.  At the age of four, the aliens attack and he, his family and the survivors are shuttled off to a refugee camp.  There he lives a troubled life until Marcus Falcone recruits him and his friend to a merchant ship at the age of nine.  In actuality, Falcone is a pirate, perhaps the most powerful pirate in the galaxy.  Like all pirates, he recruits homeless and refugee children to his cause, indoctrinating them early into this lifestyle.  Falcone takes a liking to Yuri and sets him up as his protégé, teaching him the ways of starship command and violence.  At thirteen, Yuri becomes a geisha, learning sexual manipulation and assassination.  Later, he gets his own ship to command, but is captured and imprisoned.  The feds give him a choice, to rot in prison, or to take a deal to be released and help bring down the pirate empire. 

That’s a lot of information, but it is not necessarily spoilers.  The book is told with two timelines.  It begins with Yuri being presented the deal by the feds, the Black Ops. You find out a lot of the plot in that first chapter.  Then it goes back in time to tell his story growing up on the moon, the attack, the refugee camp, and life on the pirate ship.  The chapters alternate between the present and the past, showing how Yuri came to develop into the pirate he is now. 

Lowachee’s prose is pretty awesome.  The book is told in first person present and past for the two timelines.  The past is pretty straight forward.  The present is filled with Yuri’s reflection and inner dialogue.  It makes for difficult reading at first, but flows well as you get used to it.  I think some of the confusion I had at first had to do with not reading the previous books, and also because it introduces a lot of concepts that are explained later in the chapters about Yuri’s past. 

It’s hard to like Yuri throughout the book.  This is mainly due his being manipulated into terrible behavior in his training as protégé and geisha.  Rather than rebelling, he succumbs to it and embraces it.  Most of what I felt was pity for him.  The pirate ship has become his family and for the most part, does as they command.  It’s only later that he has conflicted feelings about what he has become. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  It’s really well written and a powerful story about life with “the bad guys”.  I found myself gripped by the book and horrified at the same time.  It’s not a story for everyone, but it certainly tells a story about what war and a life of violence can do to people.