this space intentionally left blank

April 2, 2008

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

Digital Shelf: Nerds Like Recursion Edition

So here's another small gripe in an otherwise happy experience: Kindle OS updates bring with them new screensaver images--the pictures that take over the screen when the Kindle is locked. Many of these have been of famous authors. Of those, only one of them (Maya Angelou) has been a person of color, and all of them (as far as I can remember) have been from English-speaking countries. This is a little bit unfortunate on an e-book platform where the back of it has been plastered with letters of about a million alphabets, paying homage to writing systems all over the world.

The reason for the title of the post, of course, is that there's a certain redundancy to reading David Anderegg's Nerds in electronic form. Anderegg, a child psychologist, basically takes a look at the concept of "a nerd," how it affects children, and what people can do about it. It's not a bad book, and raises some interesting points, but it's also a little fluffy and scatterbrained in parts. My favorite chapter was the discussion of autism, Asperberger's, the misdiagnosis and overmedication of both in children, and their usage as signifiers of unhealthiness and sickness on the part of nerds.

Grey, by Jon Armstrong, is a weird book. It's also free from publishers Night Shade Books, so it has that going for it. I can't necessarily recommend it, but at this price all you've got to lose is your time. So if you think you might like a dystopian sci-fi fashion-centric family drama, it might be worth checking out.

Adam-Troy Castro's Emissaries from the Dead is somewhat like the Takeshi Kovacs books I like so much--a murder mystery in a sci-fi, slightly transhumanist setting. The resolution of the actual mystery could stand to be a bit more satisfying, but the pace moves briskly and it has a few twists and turns up its sleeve. The book is billed as "an Andrea Cort novel" which I assume means that sequels will follow. I'd probably give one of them a shot.

On a much more grounded note, I highly recommend Bob Harris's Who Hates Whom: Well Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up - A Woefully Incomplete Guide. It's a world tour of conflict and war, essentially. Harris is a former Jeopardy champion and comedian, the latter of which gives the book the light touch that's needed to keep it from being a mindbogglingly-depressing 200 pages. I felt a little bit guilty about laughing at it sometimes, honestly. But the historical perspective is quite well done. It's amazing to read (or to be reminded) how many countries have been undone by the legacy of colonial invaders who simply redrew borders on a whim.

Polaris, by Jack McDevitt, is another sci-fi mystery (sensing a theme?), but adds a dash of archeology. Notable mainly because the protagonist, pilot Chase Kolpath, is basically a Dr. Watson figure: she's the assistant for the sleuthier character, and that changes the tone from the average potboiler. Well written, but it telegraphs its twist from a mile away. I've read other McDevitt books before, and they always strike me as solid but not earthshattering.

One of the best observations in Jennifer Lee's The Fortune Cookie Chronicles comes early: "Our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie," Lee points out. But there are more Chinese restaurants in America than there are McDonalds, Burger Kings, and KFCs combined. "How often do you eat apple pie?" she asks. "How often do you eat Chinese?" Although I could pick structural nits (the book reads more like a series of magazine pieces loosely tied together), overall it's both thought-provoking and deftly told (see her comparison of Chinese restaurants and open-source software). A cool look at a cuisine that's American in everything but name.

Shopping for God, by James Twitchell, is a look at the commercialization of Protestantism in America--both in terms of megachurches as well as the degree to which our religious culture is a marketplace. Along with digressions into artifacts like those movable-letter church signs (which are both a decent business as well as a marketing tool for individual churches), Twitchell spends a lot of time explaining church history through an economic/branding lens. I probably would have found this more captivating if I were the kind of person who's nostalgic for the classic small American church tradition.

I suspect that David Mamet may be insane, but I've enjoyed a few of his films, so during a local non-profit's bookstore partnership day, I bought Bambi Vs. Godzilla, which is Mamet's guide to the film industry. It consists of roughly four equal parts: Jewish trivia, lessons in filmmaking, film criticism, and madness. About what you'd expect, in other words. Say what else you like about him, but the man can certainly write, and it might be worth purchasing on that strength alone.

February 14, 2008

Filed under: fiction»reviews»kindle

The Digital Shelf

In which I make a few specific observations about the Kindle, and also briefly glance over my reading material therein:

I still don't have any problems with the buttons at all, so I don't know what your problem is, butterfingers. But I do have a couple of gripes. First, it would be nice, once I've decided from a sample book to buy the full version, if the Kindle would get rid of the sample for me, instead of making me delete it manually. Also, the selection is getting better, but I still can't guarantee that if I see something great in a bookstore that I'll be able to buy it digitally. Other than that, still a great experience. Let's move on to the reviews.

99 Coffins is a sequel to David Wellington's first novel, 13 Bullets. It's billed as a "historical vampire story," which I guess is true, and the historical twist is fairly clever. That said, I should still have my head checked out for reading vampire fiction. The mutilation fetish in these kinds of books gives me the willies.

The Automatic Detective seemed like a cute idea: a robot death machine changes its mind about the whole "lead the army of doom" idea, becomes a cab driver, gets entangled in a kidnapping mystery. But that's about all it ends up being: a cute idea, supported by a lot of well-meaning fluff. For better future noir, I always recommend Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music.

Or you could read Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, including Broken Angels and Woken Furies. The Kovacs books hew closely to a lot of noir conventions, like the constant abuse taken by the hero, and then throw a loop at it: they're set in a future where people are backed up into chips and can just download into a new body when they die, or whenever they feel like it. What I like about these books, especially the first, is that they're detective/adventure novels first and transhuman gobbledygook second. Unlike a lot of entries into this subgenre, Morgan isn't trying to make his characters into some kind of new creature, as often happens to Charlie Stross or John C. Wright. Anyone who's read Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler would recognize Takeshi Kovacs and the various players he encounters. People just die a little harder this time around.

After Dark, Haruki Murakami's most recent book, is a pretty slight little story about a Japanese love hotel, a pair of sisters, and a genial trombone player. It kind of wanders around, and in the end I'm not sure it actually went anywhere, but like all Murakami it's deftly written magical realism and some good dialogue. If you're new to his work, I'd recommend Norwegian Wood instead.

My father suggested J. Maarten Troost's The Sex Lives of Cannibals, and it is indeed pretty good. The memoir of a post-graduate slacker who ends up traveling to a tiny island country in the Pacific when his girlfriend gets an aid job there, it's written with a kind of dry conversational humor that's consistently funny, and sometimes hilarious. The sections on Troost's attempts to spay his adopted cat and dogs, in particular, had me laughing out loud until Belle demanded to know what was so funny.

At the other extreme of climate and tone, The Terror is a fictional account of a real historical expedition that went searching for the Northwest Passage and never returned. The crews of two ships are stranded in the ice, unfamiliar with their surroundings but too proud to turn back until it's too late. The familiar stories--desparation, disaster, mutiny, and even cannibalism--all crop up, exacerbated (and here's where it tips from historical fiction to horror) by a huge, white monster stalking the dwindling party. It's a grim read, but compelling. Having read Simmons' Hyperion books, I knew he could do gothic horror, and The Terror doesn't suffer from the outlandish plot twists that rendered The Fall of Hyperion nearly incoherent.

The less said about The Swarm and Ill Wind, the better. Both are pulp, which I happen to particularly enjoy (the action movies of literature, I believe), but both are also pretty bad at it. The Swarm makes the mistake, early in its eco-thriller plotline, of repeatedly invoking movies with similar plotlines, like Deep Impact, Armageddon, and The Abyss. It's a bad idea to remind the reader that there are other, better versions of your story out there--and when one of those involves Ben Affleck and Michael Bay, that's saying kind of a lot.

As for Ill Wind, it annoyed me by using one of the tropes of lazy writers everywhere--a Hispanic character with a fiery temper who tosses a couple of Spanish words into every paragraph, just in case we forgot that they are, in fact, a spicy Latino stereotype. Those unfortunate enough to have read one of William Shatner's ghostwritten Tekwar novels (cut me a break, I was thirteen and worked in a used bookstore) will recognize this age-old device common to writers who have never actually met a Hispanic American. I realize I'm not reading War and Peace here, but I don't think a hint of self-awareness is too much to ask.

Finally, the best deal I've gotten on the Kindle so far has also been one of the better books I've read. Since I've been enjoying The Wire, I figured I'd try some of writer/producer George Pelecanos' crime novels, starting with The Night Gardener. At $3.99, it's about $3.50 off the paperback price, which is not bad at all. The story starts off looking like a typical serial-killer stomp set in 1985, but then jumps ahead to the present day and proceeds to continually subvert the expected narratives. Over and over again, Pelecanos raises a standard detective novel cliche (the charismatic rebel cop hero, his by-the-book partner, the killer with a gimmick, the old cop obsessed with his last case) and then obliterates it so gently that you might not even notice until you've finished the last page.

Oh, late addition: I almost forgot that I got halfway through Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia before I had to just give up on it. It is a nice feature that the Kindle will always remember my bookmark, even if I delete the book, in the unlikely event that I ever decide to return to it. But until there's also a feature in the software that will make Sacks' book something other than a list of quirky headcases, one after another, I doubt it'll come to that. I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat while I was in college and don't remember it being this tedious, so either that was a really good lecture or Sacks' writing style has really taken a turn for the worse.

July 30, 2007

Filed under: fiction»reviews»grossman

Book review: Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman

There's a fine line between satire of genre fiction and the fiction itself. Soon I Will Be Invincible wobbles back and forth on that line more than a few times. As a superhero book, it's pretty weak. As a satire, it's much stronger. I just wish it spent more time there.

Invincible is divided into two plotlines, told in alternating chapters. Odd-numbered chapters are narrated by Doctor Impossible, a super-intelligent inventor and villain, who begins the novel locked up in a foolproof jail cell. The other chapters follow a rookie hero who calls herself "Fatale" after leaving a Brazilian super-soldier program, and finds herself joining the world-renowned Champions (the equivalent, I think, to the Justice League). Impossible's chapters are usually everything that you could hope from a supervillain: wry observations about evil plans, weary complaints about the difficulty of disposing toxic waste, and contempt for the goody-two-shoes superheros.

Fatale's half of the story, on the other hand, is really less than captivating. She spends much of her time uncovering mysteries that the reader sees coming from a mile away, or opening up the sordid past for the Champions (which is much less sordid or interesting than it could have been). Grossman may have been trying to create flawed heroes through Fatale's detective work, but it comes across as standard comic-book soap operatics. When this bleeds over into Impossible's story as the book goes on, it begins to wear thin.

At the start of Invincible, Doctor Invincible poses the question of why so many of the most intelligent supers go bad--why does he do the things he does, even though he's clearly aware of the cliches that surround him? The book eventually concludes that it's just high-school politics writ large. This isn't necessarily a bad place to take the genre, since it's recognizable in both the psyches and stereotypes of comic fans and writers, but it's not terribly original either, and it's been done better. In the end, I stayed with the book not for the message, but for the moments of sly genre deconstruction: Batman as autistic, the lists of failed plans for world conquest, or underground super fighting rings. Invincible does these moments very well, even if its broader themes are clumsy. There have, I think, been really very few non-comic works that really examined the ideology of comics well, and I was disappointed to find that Soon I Will Be Invincible does not change that. This book is a fun, fast read, but I wouldn't hold high expectations for it.

March 5, 2007

Filed under: fiction»reviews»mieville

Book review: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

There must be a certain point in time when good SF and fantasy authors decide that they want to write children's fiction. Neil Gaiman, although not setting adult fiction aside completely, seemed to revive the trend in recent memory when he penned Coraline. Now one of my favorite authors, China Mieville, has written his own story for younger minds, Un Lun Dun. It's an interesting read, and I think I would recommend it to the target audience, but adult readers might want to pick it up at the library instead.

Mieville's previous books were mostly set in the bizarre world of Bas-Lag, specifically the city of New Crobuzon. Bas-Lag is a fantasy setting undergoing its industrial ages, instead of the gentle feudalism of most genre fiction, and it's influenced heavily by Mieville's Marxism. The books are also known for being grotesque and a little sadistic, or at the very least, grimy. For these reasons, it's hard to imagine him producing stereotypically saccharine children's literature. So while Un Lun Dun (pronounced so that each syllable rhymes with "run") does not reach the freakshow proportions of Perdido Street Station's man-on-insect-woman sex scenes or The Scar's self-mutilating Lovers, it's still not tame and lifeless. I thought it most resembled Alice in Wonderland, which is far more disturbing than those who have only seen the Disney sanitization think. And if he has reined in his more destructive impulses, Mieville has at least tried to redirect them toward an ever-escalating tour of oddities.

Un Lun Dun is about two girls, Zanna and Deeba, who find their way from London to an alternate reality, where Zanna is regarded as a chosen one who will banish the evil Smog by undertaking a quest across its surrealistic landscape. If this sounds cliched, don't be surprised. Mieville has consciously aimed this book at the Harry Potter-esque subgenre of wish-fulfillment fiction. He's aware that for most fantasy (adult or child), the main character basically serves as a Mary Sue, Potter included. Un Lun Dun explicitly takes aim at this hackneyed genre staple, as well as the helpful animal sidekick (replaced here with a milk carton named Curdle), the unhealthy reliance on tradition or authority, and reliance on story "tokens" to get characters out of a pinch.

In fact, Mieville actually has his sights set higher than just the genre. There are clear references, sometimes without even an attempt at disguise, to real-world events in the book. Without spoiling it, I can say that he's making a point about the Orwellian language that's been used by both governments and corporations to disguise their real actions. All I can say is that I warned you: the guy's a full-fledged Marxist and he doesn't care if you know it. I felt like it was a little unsubtle at the time, but looking back toward the end of the book, I can appreciate what Mieville's done in more context. Children's fiction is rarely subtle or subversive. By going against the grain, the end result is not a bad book, and depending on the audience, might even be a very good one.

January 23, 2007

Filed under: fiction»reviews»eggers

What is the What, by Dave Eggers

This review is split into two parts. The first part, labeled appropriately, is for people who simply wish to read the book. They don't want to pick nits with its postmodernity, and they don't want to get meta. It is, in that section, a pretty short review. The second part is concerned with an argument that could be called difficult, perhaps because it is challenging but more likely because it is me being a giant pain about the structure and framework of the book, not its dramatic content or technical execution. In other words, the first review is for readers, and the second is for critics.

Part the First

What is the What is the best thing Dave Eggers has written yet. Depending on your opinion of Eggers, best known for the high-technique but shallow debut novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that may not be a terribly impressive statement. But What is the What is a genuinely moving and skillfully-written book, centering on one of the Sudanese Lost Boys, Valentino. The protagonist is sent out of his village one day after soldiers attack, and begins a long march with other boys to Ethiopia, where he lives in a refugee camp. Around this story is wrapped a present-day narrative of Valentino, now living in America, as he recovers from a mugging. These excerpts serve as anchors for his story of the past, addressing each chapter set in Sudan to a different character from the America story arc.

Although this flashback structure sounds cumbersome, it actually serves to break up the long, depressing death march through Sudan, and it simultaneously reminds us that a refugee's life in American remains a struggle to survive. It is a story of atrocities in Africa, but Eggers gives us a critique of our own actions and support for the victims of atrocities, and the result is more moving than you might expect.

Part the Second

What is the What ends with Valentino addressing the reader directly for the first time. In previous chapters, he speaks silently to people around him, telling them his story, but on the last few pages he drops this device without ceremony and begins using the second-person pronoun instead. It's a strong rhetorical statement, and Eggers uses it to deliver the surprisingly brutal final lines: "How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist." For a book about a largely-ignored civil war and genocide, the words are a striking reminder of the apathy of most Americans toward its subject.

And yet, what a curious ending for a book shelved in the fiction section, and bearing the confusing frontispiece "What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel, by Dave Eggers." Taken literally, we might actually doubt the sincerity of Valentino's existence. Eggers based the character on an actual person, including his real name, but the experience within the pages has been extensively shuffled and combined with other refugee stories to create a more compelling narrative. While I find Eggers' other work to be tiresome, I can't avoid that he is extremely skilled with words, and uses the urgency of an "autobiography" to draw the reader in and elicit sympathy. I hope that his book, all proceeds from which will go towards the Sudanese, is a success.

But it is also impossible for me to believe that Eggers, a self-conscious postmodernist known for his use of irony, is not aware of the implications when a partially-fictionalized character uses his "existence" as a goad for audience action. Given a survey of similar works, the decision to frame this account as both a fictional novel and a factual autobiography surely comes across as truly bizarre, and unnecessary. And as I will point out, while I think that What is the What is a good book, the questions that it refuses to answer about authorship and veracity prevent it from being a great one. Why do we care whether this is a novel or an autobiography? Does this matter, in the face of the subject? I would argue that it does, for five reasons.

First, the device undercuts the narrator's reliability. This is nothing new to fiction, and if this were The Sound and the Fury or Lolita it would probably be considered admirable. Those were works of literature. What is the What, on the other hand, obviously wants readers to do something about the Sudan. Characters remark on a regular basis that the United States could take care of the civil war if it felt like it, comparing it to interventions in Iraq. Valentino prods us gently through most of the book, explaining that we can't know what his life was like, before adding that final jab. But do we believe him? Can he be considered an authority? Because of hallucinations and misunderstandings, as well as his relatively uneducated state, Valentino is an impassioned victim, but he's not a historian or an authority.

Indeed, because he has tied himself so strongly to the first-person literary device, Eggers is forced to introduce other characters--soldiers, teachers, and aid workers--who hold forth across a page or two about Sudan's history in order to inform the reader. A valiant attempt has been made to bring these excerpts into the text, but it still often comes across as Chris Farley in Wayne's World--"My, the security guard certainly had a lot of information. I sure hope it comes in handy sometime in the future." And whereas other accounts of nonfiction events (I'm thinking specifically of Under the Banner of Heaven, but there are numerous others) momentarily step with the reader into a few paragraphs of historical explanation before moving back into the narrative, the insistence here on subjectivity--particularly from the memories of a starving, exhausted, confused boy--leaves readers with a relatively weak feeling of veracity.

This raises the second weakness of the non-non-fiction approach: it implies that the real story of Valentino Achak Deng is not good enough to be novelized without embellishment. Determined to tell all kinds of horrifying stories through a single narrator, Eggers compounds the misery of many Lost Boys onto Valentino's thin shoulders, and he struggles to keep up. In the Washington Post review, Gary Krist claims of What is the What that "[t]he result, however, is a document that -- unlike so many 'real' autobiographies -- exudes authenticity." Unlike real autobiographies, this fake seems real? What does this even mean? It is disturbing, not only that we need "better" nonfiction to be driven to action, but that we have to turn a real person into a fictional character before we can really empathize. Poor Valentino: apparently he's not good enough to be "authentic" without Egger's help.

In fact, another reason to be bothered by What is the What is that there are shadows of colonialism--the White man improving and editing the Other--hovering around this narrative device. Again, I find it hard to believe that Dave Eggers, who is by all accounts a generous and conscientious liberal in addition to his literary ambitions, hasn't questioned that fact. The pedagogical side-characters explain to us, through Valentino, that Sudan's conflict is often rooted in the actions of the racist colonial powers. Yet it didn't seem to occur to him that there is a difference between "The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, by Dave Eggers" and "My autobiography, by Valentino Achak Deng with Dave Eggers." I hesitate to assign racist motives to the author (although The Stranger was not so kind), but for me the question of why this material was not approached as a traditional--and more equitable--ghostwriting project hangs over it, and colors my view.

Which brings us to the fourth weakness of such a complicated frame: it weakens the book's rhetorical strategy. At a basic level, readers must be aware of the book's history and strategy, or it could easily be confused with fiction. The back cover--which, by the way, consists of a leaflet looped over the hardcopy binding and not something integral to the book--makes no mention that Valentino Achak Deng was a real person. A brief preface by Valentino introduces the book, but a preface by a fictional character is not unknown, and certainly isn't out of place for readers who are familiar with the jokey style of Eggers' other works. Attempting to lend weight to the book by relying on its own preface reminds me of a fundamentalist who answers criticism of the Bible's trustworthiness by pointing to Biblical verses about "God's Word." It is a weak argument, even without the author's unfortunate tendency toward elaborate literary playfulness.

By presenting this book as fiction, and shelving it as such, it's entirely possible for the reader to discount it or to feel less moved. After all, it's only a story. For a skeptical or hard-hearted reader, a crime to which I will obviously confess, reading interviews and reviews of the book calls its facts into question--which parts really happened to these characters, we might ask? Which are inventions, based on the testimony of other characters (Lost Boys, Valentino helpfully reminds us, being in the habit of exaggerating their stories for sympathy). Because it's fiction, we're not given a bibliography or future references. It would be possible, a year from now, for someone to pick this book up unaware of its pedigree, be moved by the skill of writing and the character, and then completely disregard it as a true story that demands action.

Is that really the best way for Eggers to make his argument? That is a tough question to answer, especially since many people will claim to be uninterested in nonfiction. I will grant that, as such, it may find more readers than is otherwise likely. Yet my final argument is that the novel has been weakened even as fiction by its determination for self-referentiality. While aficianados of literary fiction may find it charming or clever, the constant interplay between the two stories--particularly when Valentino picks a new present-day character to whom he addresses his past narrative--is jarring. For many readers, it drops them out of their suspension of disbelief. Those members of his audience with Korsakov's Syndrome or other brain damage may thank Eggers for these constant reminders that yes, they are reading a book. It will save them tattoo ink, I'm sure. But for myself and I have no doubt a number of others, these additions don't create more value than they detract.

Why is it that Eggers can't simply leave the two storylines alone, that he has to complicate things in this way? Clearly, for some readers, the device will overshadow the work itself, which would seem to make the novel a failure. I am not willing to go that far. I will say that it is striking that Eggers still cannot write a book that does not eventually star himelf, even one where he does not appear inside. My uncharitable side is inclined to say that he's simply too self-absorbed to step aside without stealing a little bit of the spotlight. At best, I think he's just too clever for his own good.

December 20, 2006

Filed under: fiction»reviews»brooks

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

You may know Max Brooks, author of World War Z, from his previous book, The Zombie Survival Guide. That was a softcover novelty similar to the Worst Case series of books. It showed that Brooks had watched a lot of zombie movies. World War Z, in contrast, demonstrates that he understands what made the best of those movies great.

The central conceit of the book is that it doesn't present a straightforward narrative, but instead collects interviews with survivors of an undead uprising from the near future, under the guise of a "UN Special Report." The interviews detail an outbreak that begins in China and spreads rapidly, overtaking the globe before the remnants of civilization adapt and begin to regain control. There's a lot of talk about how the zombies require a different kind of war and a ruthless outlook--but the best part of Brooks' plot device is that it lets him put a very human face on the survivors--how they fought among themselves, who was saved, and what was sacrificed. Those have always been the real draw of zombie fiction, and Brooks details them deftly.

There are a number of references to recent events, including a "brushfire war" that drains American resources, but they're not too distracting, and in some cases (like the military's myopic focus on technology over effective tactics) the futurism feels a little too accurate. It's probably not a good idea to read World War Z as a metaphor or a disaster prevention guide, but it does provoke thought about our response to emergencies, and provide a pretty good Apokalyptica read in the process.

July 11, 2006

Filed under: fiction»reviews»wellington

Monster Island, by David Wellington

There are far fewer zombie books than there are zombie movies. No doubt the visual appeal of the undead has a lot to do with this--zombies are a lot more menacing with a lot of tricky editing than as a slow, fumbling cannibal horde, and directors like Romero have always played on the creative costuming available to previously human monsters. Yet since the appeal of the zombie is less as an antagonist and more as a pressure cooker for the main characters, there's certainly room for them in prose. David Wellington's Monster Island attempts to explore this genre, but like its clumsy things that go bump in the night, it suffers a number of missteps along the way.

The setup is very smart. Dekalb, the main character, is a former UN weapons inspector who was traveling in Somaliland with his daughter when the zombification began. The lesser-developed countries, being heavily armed and used to conflict, survive largely intact, while Europe and the US fall to the undead. With aid efforts suddenly dropped as a result, the Somali warlord is left without her AIDS medication, and she dispatches Dekalb to UN Headquarters in New York City--accompanied by a troop of female child soldiers--to pick up AZT. In return, she'll keep his daughter safe. Tossing a monkey wrench into the plan is a medical student who figured out how to beat the brain-liquifying part of the resurrection process. He's undead and suffers from the same hunger as the rest, but he's self-aware and marginally more coordinated.

All of which has the potential to be an interesting, grounded, science-fiction take on the traditional zombie legend. But then Wellington starts to bring in mystical networks of "death energy," far less interesting motivations, and (in my eyes, worst of all) an undead druid who's been sitting in a museum display case for thousands of years. It is just a pet peeve of mine that bringing a geeky adoration of the Celts into anything ruins it, but in this case it is certainly true. The plot takes a nose-dive into something much less dynamic and much more predictable.

Monster Island got a huge boost in its promotion by being prominently featured on uber-tech blog Boing Boing, since it was previewed as a series of blog posts. As a result, its visibility has been heightened for probably millions of people like me, who vaguely remember it while browsing the stacks. But was it worth their breathless promotion? Sadly, no! It's not a bad title. It's a better book than the Resident Evil series were movies. But if I had to pick a place to revitalize zombies in popular fiction, I don't think I'd start here.

May 7, 2006

Filed under: fiction»reviews»harrison_mj

Light, by M. John Harrison

Shorter M. John Harrison:

"You would think that with glowing cover blurbs from Gaiman, Mieville, and Banks that this couldn't fail to be a fantastic read, well worth the outrageous $15 trade paperback price. You would think.

Or, for those of you who still remember calculus fondly:

The limit of f(amount of logical sense), as the book approaches its end, is zero.

September 12, 2005

Filed under: fiction»reviews»ellis

Graphic Novel Review: Global Frequency: Planet Ablaze and Detonation Radio

There are a thousand and one people on the global frequency, each an expert in his or her field and ready at a moments notice to rescue people from threats that no-one else could handle. It's a brilliant premise by Warren Ellis, and it lets him play with the conventions of comic books--each issue is drawn by a different artist, has a unique and unconnected plot, and even a new cast. There are only two recurring characters: the leader of Global Frequency, Miranda Zero, and her assistant/coordinator, Aleph. Everything else is new with each episode.

Unfortunately, the quality can vary from issue to issue as well. The artwork ranges from fairly traditional four-color pieces to beautiful painted or inked panels. Of the former, Simon Bisley's "Detonation" stands out. Lee Bermejo's shaded work (which doesn't seem to be titled) is stunningly rendered, but Jon Muth's "Big Sky" really goes above and beyond, with its rough black inks scraped across the page like a sumi-e painting. Unfortunately, Ellis's writing for that issue can't keep up, a problem that often undermines Global Frequency.

You certainly can't accuse the creators for lacking ambition. The whole project is an unconventional idea that tries to fit in lots of other oddities. But sometimes those concepts get away from them--or worse, turn out to be not so mind-boggling after all. The "Superviolence" issue collected in Detonation Radio is just one big fist-fight, taken to sick Comics Code-busting extremes, but it simply doesn't flow well enough--or differentiate between the combatants--to be anything but a muddled, confused mess. "Big Sky" is like an X-Files episode where the magic turns out to be something disarmingly mundane, and it never gets up enough momentum to make the mystery satisfying when it's solved.

But when the writing and the art work together, Global Frequency is a great example of comics written for adults, not for superhero-obsessed fans. "The Run" introduces the audience to the city-running sport of le parkour, and pairs it with smart dialogue. "Hundred" works as an over-the-top action movie, with plenty of guns and gore that rivals even Ellis's own Authority. And some of the characterizations are brilliant, like the Russian hitman in "Detonation":

"I'm aware of the young lady. The Lam case in Kowloon. But you, Mr. Grushko...?"

"Did you ever have a nightmare about a large man who killed your parents, and your siblings, and then your lover, and then everyone you know? And then burned your house down and destroyed everything precious you ever conceived of? That was me."

Warren Ellis is one of the few comics writers whose graphic novels I regularly buy. His Transmetropolitan is a brilliant and hyperactive political satire, and The Authority betrays his glee at destroying as much of superhero comics as he can. But it's also obvious that as an author he sometimes gets stuck on an idea long after he should have let it go--Stormwatch previews the plot and themes of Authority, and the archetypal smartass Ellis stand-in (Jenny Sparks, Spider Jerusalem, and to some degree Miranda Zero) can get old quickly. That's one reason while I've always admired Planetary as perhaps his best work--the cast is interesting without being transparent, and the writing is more even along the story arc.

Global Frequency and Planetary are similar in structure, but in stepping away from the superhero deconstruction GF takes more risks. Ultimately, it's a fascinating experiment that may be too chaotic for the average reader. If you're interested in sampling the books, the first volume (Planet Ablaze) is probably a little bit better than the second.

September 1, 2005

Filed under: fiction»reviews»wright_j

Book Review: The Golden Age, by John C. Wright

You will either love or hate The Golden Age, depending on how you feel about explanation in your science fiction. Wright falls firmly on the posthuman side of SF, describing a utopian world where people can edit their mental makeup, physical bodies, and perceptions as they see fit. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it, but I don't see myself buying the other two volumes of the trilogy.

The Golden Age's protagonist is Phaeton, who finds out that his memory was edited after he took part in actions that disrupted society. The book describes his attempts to figure out what was in the missing memory and decide whether or not to restore the editing, even though doing so will result in his exile. Phaeton wanders through a wide variety of real and virtual settings, encountering superintelligent AI, mass minds, and specialized humans. Wright certainly makes the most of the setting, using it for several social and legal tangents, and he's good at describing these in a way that's interesting without being cloying or hiply obtuse.

I don't want to talk too much about the plot, since the discovery of its direction through Phaeton's memory is largely what drives The Golden Age. That leaves us with the characters and the setting, and as I've said they're largely personal preferences. I don't tend to buy the nanotech utopia that this kind of posthuman sci-fi relies on--it feels impersonal and implausible. For example, Wright comes out and clearly establishes that the pre-Phaeton world is meant to be a garden of eden, one where anything is possible as long as it's not dangerous to the existing order. Conversely, it's also clearly a capitalistic system, and I'm not entirely sure if Wright ever puts the two of those together to my satisfaction. It strikes me as more useful in metaphor than in practice. What do these people do for a living?

And why should I care? The trouble I have with a book like The Golden Age, about people who are so far removed from our own experiences and abilities, is I lose track of their limitations, and I can't empathize with them. Wright has done an admirable job of tying the plot to something simplistic (Phaeton's memory as the macguffin) in an effort to defuse that objection, but it's just not enough. The Golden Age is a book about big ideas, and perhaps they're simply too big for me to enjoy. It's not for me, but that doesn't mean I can't recognize its quality. If you're looking for a geekier, grander story, give The Golden Age a try. If you're like me, a child of grimier cyberpunk aspirations, see what else is on the shelf.

Future - Present - Past