Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category


Death Wins All Wars front coverOur new book, Death Wins All Wars: Resisting the Draft in the 1960s, a Memoir, by Daniel Holland, recently received a nice review in the Winona Daily News. The reviewer states, “It’s worth your money. It’s worth your time. It might even change your life.” (Needless to say, we agree.)

Watch for further reviews of this very well written book.

 


(The Quanderhorn Xperimentations, by Rob Grant and Andrew Marshall. London: Gallancz, 2019, 16.99 pounds, 464 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

(First, a cautionary note: Don’t expect an overly discerning review; I read this book in the wee hours of several mornings while in a semi-zombified state due to ongoing insomnia. Those not blessed with that affliction can achieve a similar state through ingestion of too many IPAs, through smoking copious amounts of Humboldt Paralysis Weed or, preferably, through combining the two approaches.)

When I saw this book, I said to myself, “Self, ya gotta read this thing!” There were two immediate attractions: the name of the book, an obvious reference to the early Quatermass sci-fi films (derived from the BBC TV series), the first of which (1955) is titled The Quartermass Xperiment; and the name of one of the co-authors, Rob Grant, co-creator with Doug Naylor of what is, hands down, the funniest sci-fi comedy series ever produced, Red Dwarf. (If you’ve never seen it, the first six series are gems, as is series 8.)

The promo copy on the back cover of The Quanderhorn Xperimentations gives a good indication of its contents: “Adapted backwards from the future from the Radio 4 series before it was made.” In other words, the book’s interior — I hesitate to call it a novel — consists primarily of absurdist humor.

In this it somewhat resembles Red Dwarf, as it does in other respects: it treats some similar sci-fi tropes (e.g., time travel, polymorphic life forms); has frequent one-liners; running gags; character-based and oftentimes crude humor; and uses humorous organizational names and their consequent acronyms. (My favorite from Red Dwarf is the Committee for the Liberation and Integration of Terrifying Organisms and their Rehabilitation Into Society — you can work that one out for yourselves.) One other similarity is that Quanderhorn lifts at least one joke — concerning the disposal of human remains — almost word for word from Red Dwarf (S1E1); there might be others, but I didn’t spot them.

Quanderhorn Xperimentations does, however, differ significantly from Red Dwarf in four ways: the characters in Red Dwarf are much stronger; the Red Dwarf episodes are much more coherent than any portion, let alone the whole, of Quanderhorn; as a result of those two things it’s almost always possible to suspend disbelief while viewing Red Dwarf, no matter how funny or how absurd the situation, and it’s simply not possible to do that with The Quanderhorn Xperimentations; and a lot of the humor in Red Dwarf is quite witty, something largely lacking in Quanderhorn.

As for the differences between Quanderhorn Xperimentations and the Quatermass films, there are several, the primary ones being: the Quatermass films were straight-up sci-fi, while The Quanderhorn Xperimentations is a work of absurdist humor with a sci-fi background; the Quatermass films featured a superhero-like primary character, Bernard Quatermass, who was both brilliant and ethical, while the corresponding character in The Quanderhorn Xperimentations, Darius Quanderhorn, is a callous, narcissistic evil genius.

Still, while The Quanderhorn Xperimentations falls short of both Red Dwarf and the Quatermass films, there’s enough humor in it to make it worth reading if you’re in the mood for an exceedingly light, undemanding read.

Recommended for Red Dwarf aficionados, fans of absurdist humor, insomniacs, zombies, and those who like to read after quaffing too many IPAs and inhaling the combustion products of burning Paralysis Weed.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (large pdf sample here). His latest book is the compilation Godless: 150 Years of Disbelief, published by PM Press, and when the insomnia let’s up and he’s relatively coherent, Zeke is working on the sequel to Free Radicals, an unrelated sci-fi novel, a nonfiction book on the seamier sides of Christianity, and an anarchist compilation for PM.

Free Radicals front cover

 

 


Here, at minimum, are the posts that we’ll put up over the next month or so:

  • A review of Neal Stephenson’s masterful, very thought-provoking new near-future sci-fi novel Fall, or Dodge in Hell, that’s in many ways is reminiscent of his near-future political thriller Reamde;
  • Quite possibly one or two other sci-fi book reviews (we tend to review only books that we love or those that particularly irritate us);
  • A long look at the reasons why the USA has ended up with a grotesque authoritarian as president, and who and what’s to blame;
  • Excerpts from both of our upcoming nonfiction titles, Death Wins All Wars: A Memoir of Draft Resistance in the 1960s, by Daniel Holland (September 2019), and The Great Evil: Christianity, The Bible, and the Native American Genocide, by Chris Mato Nunpa (October 2019);
  • A long look at economic inequality in the USA, and how those who do useful work are systematically screwed;
  • A good-sized excerpt from Zeke Teflon’s sci-fi sequel to Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia;
  • Anything else we find both funny and/or insightful (preferably both).

Stay tuned.


Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow front cover(Radicalized, by Cory Doctorow. Tor-Forge, 2019, 304 pp., $26.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Radicalized consists of three novellas and one longish short story — all described as “tales” on the dust jacket, probably in part to avoid quibbles over terminology. It’s highly entertaining and provides a good example of science fiction at its best: it shows just how relevant, how useful science fiction can be. It stands in stark contrast to the escapist, often scientifically illiterate space operas, big-dumb-object stories, coming-of-age tales, superhero juvenilia, and medievalist court-intrigue/sword-and-sorcery dreck that dominate the sci-fi field.

Radicalized‘s four near-future stories deal in turn with the inhumane treatment of immigrants in the U.S.; potential nightmare scenarios due to the ever-spreading Internet of Things (which Boing Boing, Doctorow’s site, refers to as the Internet of Shit); systemic racism as seen through the eyes of a very familiar superhero (here dubbed “The American Eagle”); healthcare nightmares endemic to our for-profit healthcare system (and a possible radical response to those nightmares); and an entitled, arrogant member of the super-rich who intends to ride out social breakdown in a fortified compound.

All four stories are well plotted, feature believable, sympathetic characters (but for the mega-rich jerk in the final tale, who’s all too believable, but not at all sympathetic), Doctorow gets the science right, and there’s more on-the-nose social and political commentary in this slim volume than there is in a dozen average sci-fi novels combined.

Highly recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (large pdf sample here). He just finished translating Rodolfo Montes de Oca’s Venezuelan Anarchism: The History of a Movement, is currently working on the sequel to Free Radicals, a nonfiction book on the seamier sides of Christianity, two compilations, and an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover


(The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders. Tor, 2019, $26.99, 366 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

(Warning: mild spoilers follow.)

I wanted and expected to like this book, due to its author. A couple of years ago I read in an anthology one of her short stories, which I thought was both inventive and funny. More importantly, I admired her work editing the io9 sci-fi site; while she was editor there was always something worth reading: news about upcoming sci-fi novels, well written pieces on science by the likes of Annalee Newitz and George Dvorsky, plus occasional insightful social commentary.

Of course, most of the material on the site was awful, junk on superheroes and manga and the like, but there was enough meat to make the site worth perusing frequently. Now that Anders has left, the site features 100% dreck.

So, I had fairly high expectations when I opened this book, among them that Anders would have a lot to say politically and socially, that the story would be well crafted, and that there would be at least some humor in it.

Those expectations crashed and burned. This is one of the most ineptly written novels I’ve ever read. Contrary to expectations, Anders has nothing to say politically or socially. Nothing. And as far as craft? OMG.

She had a very promising social/political set-up (rigidly authoritarian city vs. a totally “free” city), and she totally wasted that opportunity. Instead of exploring the ways a free society could be organized (anywhere from anarcho-capitalist to anarcho-communist), she chose to do no exploration whatsoever, just (badly) describing it as boss-run. It would be hard to come up with a more meager description of an alternative economic/political system.

Beyond that, the action sequences are poorly written, often difficult to follow and awkward. At one point, during a pirate attack, two of the protagonists take two-thirds of a page for a heart-to-heart melodramatic talk about their feelings.

Even beyond that, Anders does nothing to bring her supposed horrors to life. Nothing. For instance, the homicidal “bison,” who play a key role, have mono-filament mouths and are big. And that’s it. No description beyond that.

As well, there are altogether too many coincidences and unexplained events.

Add to that that the two alternating p.o.v. characters, Sophie and “Mouth,” are entirely duochromatic (Sophie — hopelessly naive and romantic — and “Mouth” — hopeless, longing, and angry.) That’s it.

There’s also a weird lesbian tension throughout the book that’s never resolved and in the end is quite irritating. Who cares? But please stop hinting around and just fucking do it. Please.

As well, the physical world is ineptly described. At one point, a “typhoon” passes in moments, and a “sea” is supposedly “fished out,” apparently by fisherfolk in small boats.

You get the idea. It seems as if Anders just slapped this book down on the page, didn’t bother to revise the first draft, and Tor didn’t bother to edit it.

Very much not recommended.

 


Head On, by John Scalzi. TOR, 2018, $25.99 335 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

I ran out of reading matter a couple of days ago, so I picked up a copy of one of John Scalzi’s new ones. He’s almost always reliable for a good read, so here we go. I’ve been critical of Scalzi at times, and it’s a pleasure to say something deservedly nice.

Head On is a very enjoyable near-future techno-thriller, and I liked it a lot better than its much-praised prequel, Lock In.

This book is near-pure escapist sci-fi, with utterly unrealistic, hero, incorruptible FBI agents — not the guys who infiltrate and entrap environmental activists, frame Native American activists for murder and then send them to the hole, forever, and planned the Chicago PD assassinations of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. No these are the good guys.

Despite this loathsome set up, lauding the forces of repression, this is a good book. The primary character is much more than a cipher, and the main secondary character (Vann) is well drawn.

Following the set-up, Scalzi follows with a beautifully complicated, detailed plot, with all details clicking into place, regarding professional sports leagues and their criminal financial manipulations. Scalzi skillfully guides the reader through the labyrinth.

Writing skill is not the problem here. Political reality is.

Recommended with reservations (Scalzi’s worship of the minions of the powers that be). Enjoyable as long as you’re aware of it or, god forbid, agree with Scalzi’s rosy assessment of the FBI.


Astounding front cover(Astounding, by Tim Nevala-Lee. New York, Dey St., 2018, $28.99, 532 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

While the subtitle mentions Heinlein, Hubbard, and Asimov along with John W. Campbell, this is primarily a biography of Campbell centering on his activities as editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later Analog), the largest-circulation and most influential science fiction magazine in the 1940s through the 1960s; the book has a special focus on Campbell’s relationships with the authors he published, his influence on their work, and on the authors’ relationships with each other.

The level of detail in this exceedingly well documented 500-plus-page book is, well, astounding, and the amount of work Nevala-Lee did to produce it must have been equally astounding. The dust jacket copy notes that the author drew on “unexplored archives, thousands of unpublished letters, and dozens of interviews.” It shows.

This is not, however, a dry academic history. Nevala-Lee does a fine job of bringing to life the decidedly oddball quartet listed in the subtitle, along with their wives and girlfriends (some of whom did much uncredited work) and many other sci-fi authors of the time. Nevala-Lee has not, however, produced a hagiography: the portraits of all of these figures are nuanced, bringing out both their attractive and unattractive traits. The attractive traits include. in all but Hubbard, dedication to work and writing, the authors’ and Campbell’s mutual support, and in Campbell’s case a messianic belief in the transformative power of science fiction. The unattractive traits include spousal abuse and pathological lying (Hubbard), right-wing authoritarian politics (Hubbard, Campbell, and Heinlein) and denunciations of associates to the FBI as “communists” (Hubbard). (For a good dissection of Heinlein’s most authoritarian work, see Michael Moorcock’s famous takedown of Starship Troopers, “Starship Stormtroopers.”) Even Asimov, who comes off as by far the most sympathetic of the quartet, had a serious flaw: engaging in serial sexual harassment.

For those interested in cults, there’s also a great deal of material on Hubbard’s and Campbell’s formulation of dianetics — basically a rehashing of Alfred Korzybski’s tedious and trivial “general semantics” concepts along with (though they wouldn’t have known the term) abreaction therapy (which can be quite dangerous), all with a “cybernetics” overlay — and their subsequent falling out prior to Hubbard’s coming up with the term Scientology, founding of that “church,” and installation of himself as that money-making machine’s glorious leader.

This brief summation only scratches the surface, and anyone interested in science fiction and its history should have a great time delving into this well researched, well written book.

Highly recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel, a nonfiction book on the seamier sides of Christianity, two compilations, and an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover