Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category


Razor Girl, by Carl Hiaasen, cover(Razor Girl, by Carl Hiaasen. Knopf, 2017, $35.95, 333 pp.)

If you need some relief from the sociopath in chief, from the relentless, surly glob of suet that Grant Brisbee describes as the “walking embodiment of the seven deadly sins,” here you go.

Carl Hiaasen delivers some welcome and extremely funny not-quite-escapism in Razor Girl, which in many ways is a typical Hiaasen novel. (In this context, “typical” is a very good thing.) It’s set in Florida, and it abounds in grotesque characters, grotesque incidents, amusing, well written dialogue, and laugh-out-loud passages, the funniest of which involves the side effects of a “male enhancement” product and a blood pressure cuff. There’s also pointed political and social commentary, and, as always in Hiiasen’s novels, sympathetic central characters with decidedly casual respect for the law.

The title character in Razor Girl, Merry Mansfield, is based on a real person who, like Merry, engaged in a common criminal scam involving deliberate auto accidents. What’s not common about Merry and the actual criminal is that they engage(d) in this scam while shaving their . . . well, no need to go there. . . .

The central male character is Andrew Yancy, a former detective who was busted to “roach patrol” (health inspector) after assaulting an ex-girlfriend’s husband with a mini-vacuum cleaner. Here, Yancy wants to gain reinstatement by investigating the disappearance in Key West of Buck Nance, the patriarch in the highly staged “reality” TV show, Bayou Brethren, which follows the misadventures of a supposed clan in the Florida panhandle that runs a rooster farm.

Shortly, we meet a variety of well drawn, seedy characters, including Martin Trebeaux the founder of Sedimental Journeys, a company that illegally dredges sand in one place and then sells it in another; Brock Richardson, an entitled, grubbily materialistic Miami lawyer who’s made a career of hustling product-liability cases; Lance Coolman, the sleazy agent who represents Buck Nance; and Buck’s super fan, idiot racist, homophobe, and career criminal Blister Krill, who’s so obsessed with Bayou Brethren that he’s had Buck’s nickname (from the rooster farm), “Captain Cock,” tattooed across his shoulders.

Without giving anything else away, we’ll note that while this is a comic novel, there are a lot of characters and the plot is fairly complex, so you need to pay attention as you read, which is one of the book’s strengths: Razor Girl is much more than just a collection of funny characters and incidents — it’s well plotted, and its author never insults the reader’s intelligence.

Highly recommended.

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(The Corporation Wars: Emergence, by Ken Macleod. Orbit, 2017, 402 pp., $9.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

This final portion of the Corporation Wars trilogy wraps things up neatly. Whether that’s a good thing or not is questionable. It leaves hanging (appropriately) the question of whether machine-intelligence is a good thing or not. That it exists here, is beyond question.

The narrative also, barely, leaves hanging the question of whether capitalism is a good thing or not — though the mayhem in pursuit of the profit motive seems persuasive evidence to the contrary. (Macleod has delivered a much less nuanced judgment in The Stone Canal and many of his other works.)

Another mostly unaddressed but central question is whether stored backups of personalities would, when revived, constitute continued life for the backed-up personalities. (I’d argue, pessimistically, that it wouldn’t, because the dead versions would in fact be dead — when we’re dead, we’re dead — and unaware of the “revived” versions, and unaware of their perceptions.)

As well, Macleod gives a good impression of the alienness of machine intelligence in such passages as:

“‘<Very well> said Simo. <Talis and I will wait deeper in this tunnel. If there are any indications that you have been caught, you may rely upon us to save ourselves>”

Anyway, here, in this final portion of the trilogy, we follow the protagonist Carlos, and the “freebot” (self-aware robot) Seba through their struggles against both the neo-fascist “Rax” and the neo-liberal Direction.

Without giving away too much, what I can say here is that Macleod neatly winds up the plot, without leaving much room for a sequel.

Beyond that the text is replete with mostly sci-fi references, including to the munitions company “Morlock Arms,” and a clever rephrasing of Clarke’s famous dictum: “She understood in principle, but the engineering details were at a level where the most strictly materialist explanation might as well be magic.”

Even funnier: “Entire automated law firms stored like flat-packs, ready to be assembled at first notice . . . Imagine a robot stamping an official seal . . . forever.”

The one real problem with this book and the previous one is that Macleod does not provide sufficient back story — nowhere near. So, if you haven’t read the previous books, you’ll be at a loss in understanding Emergence.

Here, for once, a prologue would have helped tremendously, as it would have with the previous book, Insurgence. As is, the lack of back story makes it impossible to fully enjoy this part of the trilogy without having read the first two parts of the trilogy almost immediately beforehand.

So, please don’t even think about reading this final part without having read Dissidence and Insurgence first, and in short order.

Recommended with that qualification.

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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, two translations, a nonfiction book, two compilations, and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover


(The Moon and the Other, by John Kessell. New York: Saga Press, 596 pp. $27.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

To understand The Moon and the Other, it’s helpful to be familiar with the reformist political current called identity politics. In the U.S., it’s been all the rage over the last few decades among liberals, especially among those in the corporate wing of the Democratic Party and those holding positions at Ivy League colleges and other elite East Coast institutions.

For those not familiar with the term, “identity politics” refers to the assumption that a person’s race, gender, and/or sexual orientation is the most important factor in politics, and that those in such groups should band together to further their own interests, making all other political goals secondary. The unspoken assumption is that everything is fine (or at least a minor problem) in comparison to the interests of the identity group.

This is a divisive, self-limiting political approach. It would be difficult to devise one better designed to distract from fundamental political and economic problems while fitting neatly into the existing political and economic power structure’s divide and conquer strategy.

More concretely, liberal political elites translate identity politics ideology into programs such as race-based admissions to universities and forced busing of school children to distant schools to give at least some poor minority kids access to better schools.

One wonders why those who foist such policies upon the public do not, instead, demand free higher education for all who want it (a fact in some European countries), and why they do not demand equal per-student funding for all public schools, thus ensuring reasonably high quality education for all students, not just some.

You’d have to ask those who advance such identity-politics “solutions” why this is so. My best guess is that they either: 1) see nothing fundamentally wrong with the existing politico-economic situation and just wish to make it marginally fairer to specific groups; 2) they see no hope of fundamentally changing that politico-economic situation and again just want to make it marginally fairer to specific groups; or 3) they’re conscious tools of the economic elites who fund their campaigns and their well paid positions in academia and the media.

The Moon and the Other’s background, the Society of Cousins (SoC), comes straight out of a virulent strain of this ideology, what one might term biology-is-destiny politics. The idea upon which the book revolves is that men are so violent and competitive that they must be disenfranchised, and that women, inherently peaceful and cooperative, must control society through a coercive political power structure — government. (On the surface, this concept is grossly insulting to men, but when you think about it it’s also grossly insulting to women, positing that they’re too weak to stand up to men in an egalitarian political and social structure.)

To provide contrast with his Society of Cousins, Kessell sets up Persepolis, another domed-crater society whose sketchily drawn political, economic, and social structure is all but indistinguishable from that of present-day liberal western democracies. (There’s also an all too brief, but perceptive, look at an Ayn Randist society.)

As the story begins, we meet the book’s protagonist, Erno who’s working as an immigrant in the bottom layer of Persepolis’ society after being exiled from the SoC for involvement in a “terrorist” dumb political stunt carried out by an extreme wing of the men’s right movement.

We shortly meet the novel’s two other central characters, both of them involved in the men’s rights dissident movement: Mira, the SoC’s unstable, immature, female version of Banksy, and Carey, her on-and-off boyfriend who resists being drawn into the movement despite his involvement in a high profile custody case.

All of these characters are well drawn, quite believable, as are several of the secondary characters, notably Hypatia, the charismatic, manipulative, intellectual leader of the dissident movement, and Sirius, an “uplifted” dog and leading newscaster in Persepolis.

Inevitably, years after the opening scenes, Erno, who has risen in life, is drawn back to the SoC as part of an Organization of Lunar States investigation of the status of men in the Society of Cousins, not incidentally at a time of the ascendancy of the men’s rights dissident movement.

The investigation is brought on, in part, by the SoC’s deletion of all published materials relating to its scientific and technical investigations over the previous thirty years. And here, Kessell posits not only internal deletion, but deletion by SoC hackers of all materials in electronic form everywhere, on both the moon and the Earth. Such an attempt would be ridiculous — doomed to failure — today, and it seems even more so set centuries in the future.

Worse, shortly after Erno’s arrival back in the SoC, Kessell throws the reader a curve. Rather than follow the struggle for men’s rights in this biologically determinist society — which, given how well the author has set up the situation, would be fascinating — Kessell presents the reader with two interwoven major events, which derail the course of the dissident movement.

Beyond that, the authors of the first event are never revealed, and their possible motives seem weak given the event’s drastic nature. As for the second related event, Kessell devotes quite a bit of space to establishing the motivation for the character responsible for it. However, a large amount of that motivation lies in the character’s resentment over his physical limitations — and those physical limitations would make his supposed actions all but impossible.

One minor problem with the book is that Kessell has an annoying habit of ending chapters or portions of chapters by revealing that something awful will happen, and then inserting pages of unnecessary material before revealing the nature of the event. That unnecessary material is there simply to keep the reader in a state of anxiety, and, for anyone who’s paying attention, that’s annoying.

In sum, the plot problems, unsatisfying conclusion, and manipulation of the reader outweigh the well drawn characters, interesting social background, and well set up social conflict. That’s unfortunate, because The Moon and the Other could have been a considerably better than average science fiction novel. As is, it’s a considerably more frustrating than average sci-fi novel.

Not 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 and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 


Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, front cover(The Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016, 462 pp., $18.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were the most popular science fiction writers in the Eastern Bloc from the 1950s through the early 1990s (when the Bloc dissolved), and were arguably the most popular science fiction authors ever. In his illuminating forward, fellow Russian sci-fi novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky, author of Metro 2033, reveals that their many novels in the 1970s had initial press runs of 500,000 and sold out immediately. Their 1964 novel, Hard to be a God, is very probably the biggest selling science fiction title of all time, the world over.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I became a Strugatsky enthusiast and read everything I could find by them in English. So, I was excited to see the appearance of Doomed City last year — a Strugatsky novel I’d never heard of.

It turns out that they wrote it in 1972, but hid the manuscript and didn’t dare to send it to a publisher for fear of being thrown in a gulag (yes, it could have happened even to such immensely popular authors) until the perestroika period in the late 1980s. It finally appeared in Russian in 1989, and the English translation only appeared last year.

Why? Doomed City is a bleak, brutal, and very thinly veiled critique of the Soviet Union and the ideology that produced it and all of its horrors.

Doomed City is set in the City (always capitalized), a place entirely isolated that might not even be on Earth, and which is the site of the Experiment (the nature of which is never explained, nor are the experimenters named). The residents of the City are all volunteers drawn from all over the world: Russians, Americans, Brits, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Swedes, and Germans, including former Nazis. Once in the City, they’re arbitrarily assigned to jobs unrelated to their previous occupations.

The protagonist, and by far the best drawn character, is Andrei Voronin, a former astrophysicist who, at the beginning of the book, is working as a garbage collector. He’s also, not coincidentally, a former Komsomol (official Communist Party youth organization) member, a conventional Marxist-Leninist, and a bit of a blockhead.

Through the following 400+ pages, we follow Voronin and his acquaintances as he works respectively as a garbage collector, detective, journalist, political boss, and adventurer/expedition leader (while still a political boss).

What’s striking throughout all this is how Voronin’s work, the amount of power he has in each job, and his position within the City’s hierarchy, is reflected in his attitudes.

As a garbage collector, he’s a blind believer in the Experiment, despite his bottom-of-the-heap position and the grossly obvious flaws in the City and its workings.

As a policeman, he becomes distrustful, suspects everyone, and becomes increasingly willing to use brutality — supplied by former Nazis who are now fellow policemen — against those he looks down on, which is pretty much the entire population of the City, including his supposed friends.

As a journalist, he adopts an adversarial attitude toward those in power.

And as a political boss, he adopts the attitudes of a political boss: entitlement, contempt for those he supposedly serves, willingness to suck up to even the slimiest political hierarchs, willingness to use violence and coercion to remain in power, and acceptance of a rigidly stratified society, with the political bosses on top and the vast army of proles (including personal servants) beneath them.

It would be hard to provide a better description of the characteristics of the “leadership” that ran the Soviet Union.

This political critique is by far the best part of the book. Other than that, Doomed City doesn’t have much to recommend it. It has a certain dreamy quality, which, however, is largely the result of poor, or at least deliberately hazy, writing (done in part in the vain hope of disguising the political critique, or at least rendering it nonspecific).

Almost all of the descriptive passages are vaguely written, using generalities rather than concrete physical description. The geography of the City, even its size, is all but indecipherable (as is the geography of the lands Voronin explores in the final section of the book). And there are too many nearly nonsensical stream-of-consciousness passages (from inside Voronin’s head), some lasting for pages. (At many points, I found myself asking, “When will this passage end?”)

As well, the secondary characters aren’t very well drawn, there are numerous loose ends, there’s almost nothing in the way of a conventional plot, and the authors offer nothing even approaching a solution to the dismal situation they critique so effectively.

That critique is summed up in a line by Izya Katzman, the most prominent and arguably the best drawn secondary character, in the latter part of the book:

“Any elite that controls the lives and fates of other people is odious.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Recommended only for diehard Strugatsky fans and those with an interest in critiques of Leninism and the former Soviet Union.

(For those new to the Strugatskys, rather than starting with Doomed City, I’d recommend Hard to be a God and Roadside Picnic.)

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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 and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 

 


(The Delirium Brief, by Charles Stross. Tor, 2017, 381 pp., $25.99)

After the last two Laundry Files novels, I thought the series was floundering. I was wrong.

The previous two books in this genre bending (sci-fi/fantasy/horror) series, The Annihilation Score and The Nightmare Stacks, marked a fairly sharp break from the five previous books in the series (not counting novellas and story collections), in that the primary narrator changed, and with it came a change of tone. The characteristic dark humor of the sardonic narrator, “applied computational demonologist” Bob Howard, was largely though not entirely absent, as was much of the pointed political and social commentary that marked the previous books in the series.

In The Delirium Brief, Bob Howard is back as the first-person primary narrator, and with him some of the humor. (There are also third-person passages from the p.o.v. of other characters.)  The tale is so dark, though, that the humor is somewhat muted. But it’s there nonetheless, as is the pointed political/social commentary, which was largely absent from the previous two books. At one point early in The Delirium Brief, Stross devotes nearly a full page to a wonderfully precise description of how privatization of public services screws the public, which is reminiscent of his description of how the banks screw the public in his very funny The Rhesus Chart.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the plot of The Delirium Brief is so dependent on back story, so dependent on the reader understanding the references to events and characters from the previous books in the series, that The Delirium Chart does not work as a stand-alone novel.

I’ve read all of the previous Laundry Files books, plus much of the subsidiary material, and I had trouble remembering some of the essential references. It doesn’t help that the novels have been spread out over more than a decade, and that I’ve read at least 500 other sci-fi novels since the first Laundry Files book, The Atrocity Archives, came out in 2004, but still….. The upshot is that only readers fresh to the series who read all of the books in a fairly short period, or readers willing to reread the previous ones, will fully appreciate this very dark tale that leaves the reader hanging, eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series.

And damn it! I want it now!

Recommended with the above provisos.

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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 skewering Christianity, a translation of a nonfiction anarchist history book, and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 

 



A few years ago we put up lists of what we consider the best anarchist and atheist science fiction novels, along with brief comments about the books, and cover images from many of them.

Since then, we’ve been adding new titles, new comments, and new cover images, especially over the last year or so. At present, the anarchist sci-fi list is roughly three times as long as it was when we put it up in 2013, and the atheist sci-fi list is about twice as long as it was.

If you have interest in these areas and you haven’t looked at the lists for a while, or if you’ve never seen them, please check them out. We think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


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.

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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 and on an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover