Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category


The Rise and Fall of Dodo front cover

(The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. William Morrow, 2017, 752 pp., $35.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Well, from Stephenson, this is something completely different: a light, comic, genre-bending (sci-fi & fantasy) novel that mixes quantum physics with computer science, magic, witchcraft, time travel, and parallel universes. If this sounds more than a bit like the set-up of Charles Stross’s “Laundry” novels, it is. (Stross’s latest such novel is just out, and I’ll review it shortly.)

Another similarity is that both the protagonists in both the Laundry Files novels and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.  are employed by a super-secret government agencies dealing with the occult. There are, however, major differences between the Stross and Stephenson/Gallard novels. One is that the “Laundry” stories feature first-person narration from a single point of view, and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. has first-person narration from eight p.ov. characters (four male, four female), and the story is told via journal entries, memos, historical documents, transcripted conversations, and e-mail exchanges. This sounds like it could be a mess, but it’s not: the story is quite easy to follow, which given the narrative complexity is no mean feat.

All of the characters are well drawn, with distinctive behaviors, physical appearance, dress, speech patterns, writing styles, and personality quirks. Those characters range from the very sympathetic (Melisande, the primary character, and Tristan, the primary male character), to the utterly loathsome (Blevins, an abusive, puffed up hypocrite).

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. begins with a time-lock device: we learn from Melisande’s first journal entry that something has gone horribly wrong, and she’ll be stranded in 1851 unless she’s rescued within a few weeks.

From there, the story unwinds detailing the development of D.O.D.O. (Department of Diachronic Operations) from its humble beginnings with Tristan, who works for the Department of Defense, recruiting Melisande, an ancient language expert, to work on a nascent time travel project. Following that, D.O.D.O mushrooms, with Tristan and Melisande quickly recruiting Frank, a physicist working in the area of (what else?) quantum physics, who creates a time travel machine in which witches can practice magic and send people back in time.

Shortly, the DOD begins using the time machine to alter the past, and shortly after that the DOD official overseeing the project, General Frink, appoints a slimy, incompetent crony as its administrator in place of the competent Tristan. From there, several disasters ensue, ending with the time-lock situation (Melisande stranded in 1851) described at the beginning of the book.

There’s no point in detailing the plot further, except to say that it makes sense as much as any time travel plot can make sense (ultimately, they don’t — they’re inescapably paradoxical). So, time travel is one of the book’s two “gimmes”; the other is the existence of magic and witchcraft.

One very attractive feature of the book is that it has many genuinely funny moments, including a wonderful three-page passage on the reactions of surveillance personnel forced to watch the virtually nonstop sexual antics of two of the characters. This is the high, or at least the funniest, point in the interplay between the male and female characters, which is both amusing and believable throughout the book.

If there’s any lesson to be drawn from The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., it’s that hierarchical institutions are inherently dangerous, in part because incompetents in command positions can and do make terrible decisions, overriding the concerns of the competent people beneath them.

Other than that, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. has no redeeming social value other than being for the most part — it’s a bit on the long side — highly entertaining.

That’s more than enough to justify picking it up.

Recommended.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


(Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow. Macmillan, 2017, 379 pp., $26.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

In Walkaway, Cory Doctorow takes on one of the most vexing matters of our time: Automation (more broadly, technological advances) is, at an accelerating rate, making human labor ever less necessary.

But what will it lead to?

A post-scarcity, egalitarian, “to each according to their wants” economy of abundance in which working is a matter of choice? Or to a version of the present artificial-scarcity economy in which there are an army of the poor and oppressed, and a few super-rich individuals who will resort to anything to retain their positions of power and privilege?

In Walkaway, the answer is both. In Doctorow’s medium-near future, there’s both a drastically more repressive version of current society — to alter the famous quotation from Lincoln Steffens, “I have seen the future, and it’s worse” — and a (small “l”) libertarian and egalitarian alternative built by those who “walk away” from the dominant “default” society, a “post-scarcity” alternative made possible by sweeping technological/productivity advances.

Therein lies the main virtue of Walkaway: Doctorow’s convincing, detailed, and attractive portrayal of that post-scarcity society and its workings.

To get a bit politically wonkish, what Doctorow describes, though he never uses the term, is an anarcho-communist society (in contrast to the other flavors of anarchism: individualist, mutualist, and syndicalist).

Other virtues include Doctorow’s insightful treatment of technological advances, notably in the liberatory and repressive possibilities they entail, and in the book’s humor, which mostly appears in its first 150 pages.

One of the main points Doctorow makes in support of a post-scarcity, egalitarian societal set-up is that meritocracy, in both authoritarian capitalist society and in libertarian alternatives, is a very bad idea, as the following dialogue between two of Doctorow’s characters, Gretyl and Iceweasel, illustrates:

“Your people are all fighting self-serving bullshit, the root of all evil. There’s no bullshit more self-serving than the idea that you’re a precious snowflake, irreplaceable and deserving . . .”

“I’ve heard all this. My dad used it to explain paying his workers as little as he could get away with, while taking as much pay as he could get away with. . . .”

“You’re assuming that because [the rich] talk about meritocracy, and because they’re full of shit, merit must be full of shit. It’s like astrology and astronomy: astrology talks about orbital mechanics and so does astronomy. But astronomers talk about orbital mechanics because they’ve systematically observed the sky, built falsifiable hypotheses from observations, and proceeded from there. Astrologers talk about orbital mechanics because it sounds sciencey and helps them kid the suckers.”

“You’re calling my dad an astrologer then?”

“That would be an insult to astrologers.”

Two other notable aspects of Walkaway are the full-spectrum sexual diversity of the characters, and that Doctorow includes two explicit, well written sex scenes. (This is in stark contrast to the usual, annoying avoidance of such scenes in the vast majority of science fiction novels, where disgustingly graphic depiction of violence is perfectly acceptable, but — horrors! — not graphic depiction of sex; the only other sci-fi authors I can think of who include explicit, fitting sex scenes in their work are Richard K. Morgan and Walter Mosley.)

As for the plot, it would give away too much to say more than that it revolves around the brutal repression of the walkaways, and their use of nonviolent resistance in response, after they develop a technology that the ultra-rich of “default” society find threatening.

The description of this conflict takes up more than two-thirds of the book, which is likely too much of it. In too many places, the latter portions of Walkaway drag. After reading the first 225 or so pages, I found myself wondering when it would ever end; I kept reading only because I wanted to see how Doctorow would resolve the conflict between the walkaways and “default.”

Anther problem with the book is that it seems disjointed at times. This is in part due to Doctorow’s using five p.o.v. characters. This isn’t necessarily a problem (see George Turner’s effective use of multiple [five] p.o.v.s in Drowning Towers), but it is here. Doctorow switches from one to another purely to advance the story, with the amount of time devoted to the different p.o.v.s varying considerably; and, as Walkaway progresses, it all but abandons the p.o.v. of what I originally thought was the primary p.o.v. character.

It doesn’t help that there’s little if any overlap — no differing views of the same things, a la Rashomon — in the events described from the different p.o.v.s, which aggravates the disjointedness problem.

Still, Walkaway‘s virtues — especially it’s detailed, attractive portrayal of a libertarian post-scarcity society — outweigh its faults.

Walkaway is quite probably the best fictional description of a post-scarcity society ever written.

Recommended.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, and on an unrelated sci-fi novel, in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


H Walked Among Us by Norman Spinrad front cover

(He Walked Among Us, by Norman Spinrad. Tor, 2009, 540 pp., $27.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

(This is an expanded and, we think, better review of this novel than the one we ran two years ago.)

For decades, Norman Spinrad has been one of the most prolific and under-appreciated science fiction writers. He’s written dozens of novels, some great, some not so great–which puts him in good company: almost all prolific authors are inconsistent. (Even Shakespeare on occasion could have used a good editor.) There are some real jewels among Spinrad’s works, notably The Iron Dream and Mindgame, but He Walked Among Us is arguably Spinrad’s best novel.

It concerns a Borscht Belt comedian, Ralf (no last name), who bills himself as a time-traveling “comedian from the future” from “Deathship Earth” in the 22nd century, where the few wretched survivors huddle inside abandoned shopping malls on a poisoned planet; Ralf’s shtick consists largely of mercilessly berating his audience, “monkey boys” and “monkey girls,” for their stupidity and environmental irresponsibility.

While performing one evening at Kapplemeyer’s, a dive Catskills resort, Ralf is discovered by the novel’s most entertaining character, Texas Jimmy Balaban, an agent for second-string comics, who drinks a lot, is very “Hollywood,” and isn’t above using his position to get laid, but is basically honest and has always “tried to be a mensch”–in other words, he’s about as good as it gets as far as agents go.

Spinrad describes Balaban’s reaction to the audience at Kappelmeyer’s:

It was an audience that Texas Jimmy wouldn’t have wished on Adolf Hitler and Auschwitz Boys, an audience that he wouldn’t even have wished on the acts actually condemned to face it.

Ralf is the final one of those acts.

Very shortly, Texas Jimmy takes Ralf to Hollywood and lands him a gig hosting a low-budget TV talk show, The Word According to Ralf,  on one of the minor TV networks. Ralf, who always remains in character, and insists that he actually is from the future, quickly runs out of steam with his gloom-doom-and-abuse routine.

At that point Texas Jimmy calls in new age acting coach Amanda Robbin and hard/social science fiction author and screenwriter Dexter Lampkin to recast Ralf and to save the show. Very shortly, Ralf becomes the prophet from “Starship Earth,” who’s here to save the planet, and the show begins to gain popularity due to its more upbeat tone and the conflict between the new age flakes Amanda books as guests and the nerd types Dexter books.

As part of the attempt to save the show, Dexter turns to a community about which he has very mixed feelings: sci-fi fandom, as witness the following excerpts told from Dexter’s point of view:

Oscar Karel was a familiar figure at science fiction conventions. With his massive paunch flowing seamlessly into his enormous ass without benefit of a waistline and his narrow shoulders and chicken-chest, Oscar Karel was shaped like a giant overweight penguin. At a science fiction convention, his physical appearance would have hardly been noticed, since this was a dominant fannish genotype . . .

Most of the hotel personnel would never have seen so many grossly overweight people together at the same time, and even if they had, certainly not wearing T-shirts and capris and jeans and harem costumes in such perfectly blithe disregard of the exceedingly unfortunate fashion statement.

Globuloids, Bob Silverberg called them.

There are a great many similarly funny, mostly less acerbic, passages scattered throughout the book.

Without giving too much away, the remainder of He Walked Among Us deals with the conflicts between Ralf, Balaban, Amanda, and Dexter, their efforts to save the show, and an emerging desire to actually save the Earth.

One ingenious aspect of this novel is that while Ralf is the center of gravity around which all else revolves, he is not one of the point-of-view characters. Rather, the story is told from the point of view of other characters, including “Foxy Loxy,” a New York crack whore who, in an apparently separate story, descends into graphically described madness, degradation, and violence. The segments dealing with Foxy (aka “Rat Girl”) are riveting and all too easy to buy, but are unpleasant reading, made more so by the very close third-person narration in her segments. An example:

Practically at the the bottom of the fuckin’ can, there it was, half a Big Mac, meat an’ all, little green around th’ sesame seed bun maybe, not the kinda thing you wanted t’think about maybe with all th’ cockroaches come crawlin’ out of it when she snatches it, but she don’t have to, because Rat Thing don’t wanna waste the live protein, he has her shovin’ it in her mouth an’ chewin’ it down in three big mouthfuls before the last of the roaches can escape or she can even think about thinkin’ about it.

That passage isn’t much fun to read, but it must have been a hell of a lot of fun to write.

Through over 80% of He Walked Among Us, while dark suspicions grow, the reader is left wondering “How in hell will this tie in with the rest of the story?”

The other p.o.v. characters are Texas Jimmy, Dexter, and Amanda. Dexter, one strongly suspects, is modeled at least in part on Spinrad himself. (Spinrad intersperses a number of anecdotes about himself in Dexter’s sections.) Dexter is conflicted about his career, doing meaningless writing jobs simply to make ends meet, unhappy about sales of his sci-fi novels, and ambivalent about his fans, who he’s harnessing to promote Ralf and his and Amanda’s mutual save-the-Earth agenda.

Amanda is the least interesting of the main characters, though she, like the others is well drawn and believable–she reminds me of all too many new agers I’ve known over the years.

One weakness of the book is that He Walked Among Us is primarily a comic novel, and most of the sections involving Amanda are overly long and simply aren’t funny. The same could be said of a couple of the segments describing Ralf’s TV show.

Eventually, all the threads of the story converge, including the “Rat Girl” narrative, with all the dread it entails. How Spinrad resolves it is unexpected, but it works.

Until literally the final paragraph, I couldn’t figure out how Spinrad was going to end this book. But he does, and the ending is perfect.

Before ending, I’ll note that there is one curious thing about He Walked Among Us: based on its detailed descriptions of background, it seems almost certain that this book was written (at least in good part) well over a decade before it was published. For one thing, there are mentions in a few places of archaic day-to-day technologies (e.g., answering machines), but more telling is what isn’t there: neither cell phones nor the Internet are mentioned anywhere in this 540-page novel.

My hunch is that Spinrad started writing this book in the late ’80s or early ’90s, couldn’t figure out how to end it, set it aside, and finally finished it in the mid to late 2000s, at which point it would have required major revision — revision unnecessary to the plot — to accommodate those technologies.

It’s a testament to how well the book is written, though, that I didn’t even notice those missing technological elephants the first time I read the book. (This is very likely, at least in part, due to my having lived through the ’80s and early ’90s as an adult: the background seems entirely natural to me.)

In any event, I haven’t read a book in ages I’ve enjoyed as much as He Walked Among Us. It’s very, very funny, thought provoking, and in the end both touching and inspiring. In large part it’s a love letter to science fiction and its potential to inspire change.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

* * *

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

Free Radicals front cover


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

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

In recent decades, dystopian novels have become nearly synonymous with 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 years promise to be catastrophic; we’re on the brink of a new dark age under the iron fist of religious totalitarians and their 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 see why dystopianism is the far-from-new normal in science fiction.

So, having heard next to nothing about American War, I was expecting a fairly standard take on the horrors to come, especially the ecological horrors. But  American War, which describes the “second civil war” (2074 – 2095), is a far from standard tale.

El Akkad deliberately (I’d bet the farm on this) 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 the map was, “What the hell? Three poor, backwards states standing against the rest of the country? Holding on for 21 years?”

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

The reason for the FSS rebellion is the prohibition of use of petroleum products as 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. The underlying premise is barely plausible now and will become increasingly implausible as time passes; it will make no sense at all six decades from now. So, El Akkad deliberately chose an extremely improbable background premise.

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, if they thought about it, 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 isn’t there even a vague reference to the “second civil war”? (It would be quite easy to add such a reference in a subtitle.)

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 second 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, American War is about the present. (Tellingly, there’s no mention of any technology whatsoever beyond what’s currently available.)

American War is not about the effects of developing technologies; it’s not about an even remotely plausible future in the U.S.

It’s 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, El Akkad reveals that the U.S. unmanned drones are solar powered, can stay aloft indefinitely, rained 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 El Akkad deliberately made his background — in this particular, the drones — implausible.

Why would he do that? (Such apparent sloppiness is in stark contrast with Akkad’s adroitly drawn and developed characters and his skillful rendering of both action sequences and 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 El Akkad describes, and their woeful, ever worsening effects on the personalities, outlooks, and consequent actions of his characters, especially Sarat.

This story could be set in virtually any combat zone in any Muslim country. El Akkad set it in the U.S., using American characters, disguising it as a run-of-the-mill sci-fi dystopian tale, simply so that American readers will be able to relate to it on an emotional level.

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.

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(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.

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(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.)

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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