Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category


American War by Omar El Akkad front cover(American War, by Omar El Akkad. Knopf, 2017, $26.95, 333 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

Dystopian novels have become in recent decades, for better or worse, nearly synonymous with modern science fiction. It´s easy enough to see why: climate change seems to be accelerating, some areas (e.g., the American Southwest, where I live) are already feeling severe effects from it, and the results worldwide in coming decades promise to be catastrophic; we’re on the brink of a new dark age under the iron fist of religious totalitarians and their grotesque political co-conspirators; we’re well into a period of mass extinction; there’s runaway population growth actively encouraged by some of the “great” religions; modern weapons of mass destruction are far beyond “nightmarish”; technological advances are far outstripping social advances; and sadism and stupidity are running neck and neck as national hallmarks.

Given such conditions and such bleak prospects, it’s easy to why dystopianism is the far-from-new normal in science fiction.

So, having heard next to nothing about American War, when I picked up the book I was expecting a fairly standard take on the horrors to come, especially the ecological horrors. But  American War is a far from standard tale.

Even though the events described in it take place during the “second civil war” between 2074 and 2095, Akkad deliberately–I’d bet the farm on this–and from before the first page of text, sabotages the plausibility of his dystopia.

The first hint is the map in the front of the book showing the breakaway “Free Southern States” (FSS) of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi as opposed to the rest of the U.S., with the Southwest mostly part of the “Mexican Protectorate.”

My reaction to this was, “What the hell? Three backwards states standing against the rest of the country? Holding on for 21 years?”

Very shortly into the text, Akkad makes it very plain that he’s not projecting possible future developments in the United States, but is up to something very different.

The reason for the FSS rebellion is the prohibition of use of fossil fuels. Again, what the hell? None of the three states are significant oil producers; we’re rapidly approaching peak oil production; most new production in North America (shale, tar sands) is much more expensive than pumping from the old, rapidly depleting oil fields; and the cost of renewables is falling like a rock. This almost certainly means that oil will go up in price and will be rapidly displaced by cheaper renewables. So, the underlying premise is barely plausible now and will become increasingly implausible as time passes; it will make no sense at all six decades in the future.

Then there’s a glaring–and I mean glaring–absence in the social structure of the FSS: racism. Racism disappearing from the American South in a mere sixty years, and during a time of upheaval and economic desperation? What the hell?! Who could possibly buy this?

So, just what is Akkad up to?

The first clue is the title of the book, “American War.” That seems a bit ambiguous, and why not even a vague reference to the “second civil war”?

The second clue is provided by the book description on the inside of the dust jacket:

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the war breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, her home state is half underwater, and the unmanned drones that fill the sky are not there to protect her. A stubborn, undaunted and thick-skinned tomboy, she is soon pulled into the heart of secessionist country when the war reaches Louisiana and her family is forced into Camp Patience, a sprawling tent city for refugees. There she is befriended by a mysterious man who opens her eyes to the injustices around her and under whose tutelage she is transformed into a deadly instrument of revenge.

Fair enough, but the final sentence of the final paragraph on the inside flap reads, “It’s a novel that considers what might happen if the United States were to turn its devastating weapons upon itself.”

Close, but not right.

Above all, the novel is about the psychological effects of the type of war the United States has been waging sporadically for decades, and nonstop for the last 15 years, in the Near East, Middle East and Northern and Eastern Africa. It’s about what happens to people who are torn from their homes, are forced into miserable refugee camps, are under constant deadly and random threat from above, and are kidnapped, imprisoned without charge, and brutally tortured.

Shortly into the narrative, Akkad reveals that U.S. unmanned drones are solar powered, can stay aloft indefinitely, rain down destruction during the entire two-decades-plus of the war, and are uncontrolled, because Southern “terrorists” destroyed the “server farms” controlling the drones. This is beyond ridiculous on several counts, and again points to the very high likelihood that Akkad is deliberately making his background implausible.

Why would he do that? (Such sloppiness is in stark contrast with Akkad’s adroitly drawn and developed characters and his skillful rendering of physical background.)

The point is that the drones are simply there as a constant threat, maiming and killing the innocent, seemingly at random. The point is the constant, year-in-year-out state of fear and anger suffered by those under threat.

The same holds for all of the other horrors Akkad describes, and their woeful, ever worsening effects on the personalities and outlook of his characters, especially Sarat.

There’s little point in saying more, except that if you want to understand the psychological roots of the hate and terrorism engendered by America’s foreign wars, American War is a good place to start.

This book is a masterpiece.

Very highly recommended.

* * *

(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover

 

 

 

 


broken_glass

(thanks to T.C. Weber, author of Sleep State Interrupt, for this one; for more on the topic of reader reviews, see “Why Your Reviews Matter“)


Empire Games cover(Empire Games, by Charles Stross. Tor, 2017, 331 pp. $25.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

At long last, Charles Stross has produced another book in the “Merchant Princes” universe, a series which is basically near-future sci-fi in alternative-timelines guise. Empire Games is the first book in a new trilogy, with the second and third books scheduled for January 2018 and January 2019 respectively

Unfortunately, the book prior to Empire Games, The Trade of Queens, which concluded the original series, appeared in 2010, so even for those who read that series the characters and plot lines will likely have become hazy over time. I read the original series when it came out, and since then have started probably 500 or 600  sci-fi novels and finished maybe a third of them (so many books, so little time). If the characters and events from the earlier series were fresher in mind, I’d almost certainly have enjoyed Empire Games more than I did. Throughout the book, I found myself muttering, “now who exactly is that and what’s the back story here?”

Stross does, however, provide enough information within Empire Games so that a reader unfamiliar with the original series can follow the book, if not fully enjoy it.

As for the plot, backdrop and characters, Empire Games starts in 2020 in a parallel timeline to our own, in which renegade members of a ruling elite/criminal syndicate nuked the White House in 2003, and were in turn, along with the rest of their society, nuked back to the Stone Age by President Rumsfeld.

The resulting American society is similar to the present-day USA, but under the thumb of an even more oppressive security state which utilizes nearly all-pervasive surveillance, and in which the government seems to be a theocracy, with the fundies, Mormons, and (yes!) Scientologists embedded in the power structure.

In this horrid situation, a branch of the DHS makes an offer she can’t refuse to Rita Douglas, the (unavoidably abandoned) daughter of Miriam Burgeson, a minister in a democratic government in a third timeline, that is in arms race with the reactionary, monarchist French Empire, and that is conducting a crash technological/industrial revolution due to terror that the paranoid, violence-prone “Americans are coming.” This leads to the reason, in part, why the DHS forcibly recruited Rita — to act as a spy on her mother’s government and society.

This is a grossly inadequate summary of Empire Games, but there are six previous books in this “universe” that provide the necessary back story, and it’s impossible to summarize them in a few hundred words (even if I remembered them more clearly).

That said, there’s a lot to like about Empire Games, starting with the dedication: “For Iain M. Banks, who painted a picture of a better way.” Other positive aspects include Stross’s (as always) well drawn characters, intricate plot, and his accurate portrayal of the ruthlessness of the American government. The book even has an intriguing and unexpected twist right at the end.

One inadvertently funny facet of the book is that several of its characters live in the Phoenix suburbs, and Stross mentions with apparent horror a temperature of “almost a hundred Fahrenheit outside.” I couldn’t help but smile when I read that. In Arizona, we have a term for temperatures of “almost a hundred Fahrenheit”: “Winter.” (Here in Tucson, the forecast is for a high of 88 on Friday [Feb. 10], and it’ll quite possibly hit the mid-90s in Phoenix on that same day.)

The only real complaint I have about Empire Games is that an explanatory prologue would have been a huge help in comprehending and fully enjoying a book so far separated from its predecessors.

Highly recommended, nonetheless. But read the previous six “Merchant Princes” books first.

* * *

(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover


cover for Normal, by Warren Ellis(Normal, by Warren Ellis. Farrar, Straus and Giraux, 2016, 148 pp., $13.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

Whether Normal is science fiction is questionable. It is however, very much concerned with the future and those who predict it, futurists. In this case, futurists who have been driven mad by contemplating the future or by allowing themselves to be used by governments and corporations racing to put new technologies to the worst possible uses.

The novella begins with its protagonist, Adam Dearden, a foresight strategist, heavily sedated, en route to Normal, the rehab facility that treats those who for too long have “gazed into the abyss.”

(See Nietzsche’s aphorism 146 from Beyond Good and Evil:

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

References to, and paraphrases of, this aphorism appear repeatedly in Normal, but neither the full aphorism nor its attribution appear anywhere in the book; Ellis apparently figured that this is such a famous quotation that readers will be familiar with it.)

Once at Normal, Adam falls into the place’s decidedly oddball routine and quickly gets to know its even more oddball inhabitants, including Clough, “a man from the north of England, by his accent, with a face like a mallet and skin like a map of Yorkshire scratched out in gin-broken veins.”

Very shortly, one of the other patients, Mansfield, goes missing from his locked room. When the door is forced, the orderlies find only a huge pile of insects on Mansfield’s bed.

The investigation of Mansfield’s disappearance is undertaken by, first, the facility’s staff, and then by the patients with Adam in the lead. During that investigation, we gradually learn what drove him crazy, more about the technological horrors dreamed up by some of the futurists, and how both these things relate to Mansfield’s disappearance.

Along the way, there’s frequent dark, often grotesque humor, vivid descriptions of humans crazed from “gazing into the abyss,” and occasional trenchant political and social comments, such as that of Adam to his psychiatrist, Dr. Murgu:

Americans are all about ‘supporting our troops,’ until those troops come home, and the best those troops can expect is some idiot mouthing ‘Thank you for your service.’ Because the moment they come home, they’re abandoned and forgotten by the system. Unless there’s a VA hospital available to kill them in.

Although only 30,000 words long, Normal is replete with fine descriptive passages, well drawn characters, dark humor, and glimpses of the horrifying future being prepared for us by the state and the corporations that control it.

Highly recommended.

* * *

(Note: Given the normal lag time between a writer’s finishing a book and its being published, Ellis likely wrote Normal in 2014 or early 2015. Three days ago I read a report on the recipient of a DARPA grant creating what is nearly identical technology to the frightening technology central to Normal.)

* * *

Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.

Free Radicals front cover

 

 

 

 

 


Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson cover(Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson. TOR, 2016, 351 pp., $27.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

Prolific Canadian sci-fi author Robert Charles Wilson’s most recent novel, The Affinities (2016), was a thought-provoking, enjoyable read, as have been most of his previous books; he has, however, produced a few duds, such as Burning Paradise (2013), the novel preceding The Affinities. So, I was looking forward to this new book, hoping for the best but wondering where it would fall on the spectrum.

Last Year has its points. One is its premise, which is that sometime in the near future physicists will have discovered a way to access parallel time streams, and that a billionaire (August Kemp) has taken advantage of that discovery to open a type of Disneyland in 1873 Illinois. He uses that amusement park, Futurity City, to attract at top dollar the rich of the period to see the “wonders of the future,” and the 21st-century rich to indulge in a nostalgic (not so) “cheap holiday in other people’s misery.”

The protagonist is Jesse Cullum, a “local” working on Futurity City’s security detail, who comes to Kemp’s notice after foiling an assassination attempt on President Ulysses S. Grant. Cullum subsequently undertakes a number of special assignments with a partner from the 21st century, Elizabeth DePaul.

Wilson interweaves their adventures in the 1870s with Cullum’s back story as the son of a drunken whorehouse bouncer in San Francisco; following a violent altercation with the novel’s villain, mob boss Roscoe Candy, Cullum fled the city abandoning his injured sister to his aunt’s care.

To add tension to the tale–what is going to happen to all of these characters?–Wilson utilizes a “time lock” device: the portal to the future, “the mirror,” will close in 1877 to avoid excessive disruption to the time line in which it opened. With the time lock always lurking in the background, the tale unfolds, with the tension ramping up as the deadline approaches.

One of the virtues of Last Year is that Wilson uses the story to demystify both “Golden Age” America (racist, misogynistic, ignorant) and present-day America (somewhat less racist, misogynistic, and ignorant), and also to show that even the most apparently benevolent rich people can be (and almost inevitably are) warped by their wealth and power.

On the negative side, one minor problem is that while a fair portion of the book is set in San Francisco, Wilson is apparently unfamiliar with the place. For instance, he references people sweltering in their bedrooms during the summer. This is simply wrong. A typical summer day in San Francisco is overcast and foggy with a high of 55 and a low of 54; the warmest part of the year is in September and October, when the temperature will sometimes rise into the 80s, but usually doesn’t.

As well, the geography is slightly off. As an example, part of the action is set in a hotel on the block between Mission and Market on Montgomery Street. Wilson sets the walk to the Market Street wharf at 30 to 45 minutes from there. During my decade in San Francisco, I worked for a short time in a building half a block from the hypothetical hotel in Last Year; the walk from there to the wharf is a brisk 10 minutes, 15 if you take your time.

But these are minor matters. Anyone not familiar with San Francisco wouldn’t notice them.

A more major problem is that it’s too easy to figure out how the plot will resolve, as there are very few possible ways it could go. Halfway through Last Year, I thought I had it figured out, and I did. The details were all that were in question. Almost any reader who’s paying close attention would probably also figure out the plot.

Last Year is a mixed bag. The writing is, as usual from Wilson, skillful. The characters are interesting and (mostly) sympathetic. The action scenes are well described. And Wilson’s social commentary is spot on. It’s difficult, however, to get beyond the too obvious plot resolution.

If you’d want to read any of Wilson’s recent novels, I’d recommend The Affinities, not Last Year.

* * *

(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel. And an unrelated sci-fi novel.)

Free Radicals front cover


(Insurgence by Ken Macleod front coverThe Corporation Wars: Insurgence, by Ken Macleod. Orbit, 2016, 331 pp., $9.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Insurgence, the brand new second installment in Ken Macleod’s Corporation Wars trilogy, resolves issues left hanging in the first book, Dissidence.

Insurgence settles the matter of what’s real and what’s virtual in the Corporation Wars universe, and also clearly reveals the nature of one of the two antagonistic political factions, the Reaction, or Rax. They’re essentially the alt-right: racist, abusive, self-seeking propertarians who regard other people as “potential slaves.” (As in Dissidence, there’s frustratingly little in Insurgence on the nature of the Rax’s opponents, the Acceleration, or Axle.)

Like its predecessor, Insurgence is a page-turner, akin to what another reviewer termed an “airport bookshop thriller.” There’s enough intrigue and more than enough well described combat scenes to satisfy even the most hardcore military sci-fi fans.

Along the way, we get to know both the trilogy’s protagonist, Carlos, and the rebellious, sentient robots, the “freebots,” quite a bit better. As well, there’s a lengthy, quite plausible section showing how a cult of personality can emerge in even the most seemingly progressive political movements.

Like the first book in the series, Dissidence, Insurgence doesn’t work as a stand-alone novel. Instead, it reveals the nature of the conflict, reveals more of the nature of the conflicting parties, and sets the stage for the conclusion of the trilogy.

Recommended (but only after you’ve read Dissidence).

* * *

(Reviewer Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on its sequel. A large sample from Free Radicals, in pdf form, is available here.)

Free Radicals front cover

 

 


2016 was a good year for us  (if not for U.S. democracy, the rest of the world, and the environment).

In our first half-year, in 2013, this blog received 2,500 hits; in our first full year, 2014, it received 8,000; in 2015, 9,800; and in 2016 the number jumped to 14,900.

We also hit 400 subscribers in December; had our best month ever in that same month, with over 2,100 hits; and had our best week ever, last week, with just under 1,000 hits.

Our 10 most popular posts in 2016 were:

  1. Anarchist Science Fiction: Essential Novels
  2. Alcoholics Anonymous Does More Harm than Good
  3. A very brief History of Calypso and Soca Music
  4. Back to the Terrifying Future: Sci-Fi E-book Giveaway
  5. A very brief History of Country Music
  6. God’s Thug: Brigham Young
  7. A very brief History of Funk Music
  8. Alt-Country Player Al Perry
  9. Review: The Martian, by Andy Weir
  10. Homecoming for Mormon Missionaries

During the coming year we’ll continue to post daily (well, we’ll try) on music, politics, science fiction, religion, atheism, cults, science, skepticism, humor, and anything else we think is interesting and that our readers might enjoy.

Over the coming month, we’ll post an excerpt from our upcoming title, Venezuelan Anarchism: The History of a Movement, by Rodolof Montes de Oca, reviews of two new sci-fi novels, Ken Macleod’s Insurgence and Robert Charles Wilson’s Last Year, more on the “Russian hacking” affair, more interesting and marginally useful Internet crap, and a good old fashioned Religion Roundup.

Be on the lookout for another e-book giveaway sometime reasonably soon.