Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category


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 opera, big-dumb-object stories, coming-of-age tales, superhero juvenilia, and medievalist court-intrigue/sword-and-sorcery dreck that dominate the field.

Radicalized‘s four near-future stories deal in turn with the inhumane treatment of immigrants in the U.S. and 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 they 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 super-rich jerk in the final tale, who’s all too believable, but not 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:

This is a very enjoyable near-future techno-thriller. 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, shoot and frame Native American activists for murder and then send them to the hole, forever. Oh 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 primary 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 serious reservations (Scalzi’s butt kissing of the powers that be). Enjoyable as long as you’re aware of it.


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


campbell

“[W]hen you have trouble with the beginning of the story, that is because you are starting in the wrong place, and almost certainly too soon. Pick out a later place in the story and try again.”

–John W. Campbell, giving advice to a young Isaac Asimov, quoted in Astounding, by Alec Nevala-Lee


Thin Air cover(Thin Air, by Richard K. Morgan. Del Rey, 2018, 528 pp, $28.00)

by Zeke Teflon

It’s nice to have Richard K. Morgan (aka Richard Morgan in the UK, for god knows what reason) back writing sci-fi after what seems to have been a decade wasted writing fantasy, the Landpit for Heroes trilogy. Having been a huge fan of Morgan’s previous sci-fi novels (especially the Kovacs trilogy and Black Man) I read the first thick-as-a-brick book in the trilogy, The Steel Remains — notable for its lack of plot — and got through the first two pages of the second book, The Cold Commands, before deciding I couldn’t stand reading any more of it.

Thin Air is a return to form. The tone is reminiscent of both the Kovacs books and Black Man (Thirteen in the U.S.) in both grittiness and political subtext. It’s set on a very dystopian Mars a couple of centuries hence, and is a commentary on the results of colonialism in a neo-liberal context. (Various streets and buildings are dubbed Gingrich, Hayek, Reagan, Rand, etc.)

One of the opening quotes sets the tone:

Far from heroic and romantic heraldry that customarily is used to symbolize the European settlement of the Americas, the emblem most congruent with reality would be a pyramid of skulls. (Dean Stannard, American Holocaust)

For the purposes of this review, suffice it to say that the anti-hero of this brutal tale, Veil, a genetically modified former corporate mercenary, is every bit as emotionally numbed and damaged as former envoy Takeshi Kovacs in the Kovacs trilogy. (FYI, the first book in the Kovacs series, Altered Carbon, and its sequels, is much different and considerably better than the still-good Netflix series based on it.)

The plot is intricate; every single corporate, political and governmental entity is corrupt and treacherous; and the action is almost nonstop and graphically described. There’s a huge amount of violence in this book, all of it very well and stomach-churningly depicted, and a much smaller amount of graphic and accurately described sexual content — a very welcome departure from the customary sci-fi norm of cartoonish ultraviolence and prudish sexual avoidance.

Welcome back Richard K. Morgan.

Highly recommended.

(The only thing I’d add is that for those interested in the psychology of colonialism, the best sci-fi work is Mike Resnick’s A Hunger in the Soul, regarding a barely disguised East Africa. The two best works period are Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and his appallingly funny short story “An Outpost of Progress.” Barbara Kingsolver’s horrifying The Poisonwood Bible is also well worth a read.)

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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 Spanish-English translation on Venezuelan anarchist history, a nonfiction book on the seamier sides of Christianity, two compilations, and an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover

 

 


(The Consuming Fire, by John Scalzi. Tor, 2018, 316 pp., $26.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

 

The Consuming Fire is the second book in Scalzi’s Interdependency series, following 2017’s The Collapsing Empire. Both books seem purely commercial, lowest-common-denominator fantasy that’s set in space to give them a sci-fi gloss. There’s nothing new in either book. There’s a standard medieval political/social set-up, and the sci-fi elements are all well worn: computer simulations of the dead; “the flow,” a path between stars that somehow allows faster than light travel; and . . . well, there isn’t much else.

Worse, this second book in the series is dull. There’s nothing of political, social, scientific, or technological interest in it, and it revolves entirely around personal conflicts and political maneuvering among the nobility. (Those entertained by such things would do well to stick with Game of Thrones.) One of the reasons that this maneuvering is so uninteresting is that the characters are unconvincing: the good guys are unrelievedly pure of heart, and the villains are unrelievedly evil. In other words, they’re cardboard characters, and it’s difficult for a reader to care about such characters.

One might also mention that Scalzi appears to have had historical and political amnesia when he wrote Consuming Fire, because the “emperox,” the primary character, appears entirely uncorrupted by being the most powerful person alive. In Scalzi’s Interdependency universe, power doesn’t corrupt and absolute power doesn’t corrupt at all.

Even worse, the story is largely built upon exposition rather than narrative (telling rather than showing), the amount of dialogue is ungodly, often page after page of it — Chapter 5, for instance, is eleven pages long, and eight of those pages are devoted to dialogue — and the purpose of the dialogue is primarily expository. One odd aspect is that Scalzi throws in quite a bit of swearing into the dialogue. The end result is that Consuming Fire reads like a badly written YA novel the author has attempted to spice up with gratuitous cursing.

As well, due to the moderately distant third-person narration, there’s essentially no interior monologue — Scalzi tells you what his characters are thinking and feeling rather than allowing his characters to do it themselves — as well, there’s not much in the way of action sequences, and the comparatively few descriptive passages are nothing out of the ordinary.

Given Scalzi’s previous achievements — especially the vivid “Old Man’s War” military sci-fi series, the very well crafted near-future thrillers Lock In and Head On, and his fine comic sci-fi novels, Agent to the Stars, Fuzzy Nation, and Redshirts (since Sheckley, Scalzi is unquestionably the best comic sci-fi writer) — The Consuming Fire is shockingly bad.

Very much not recommended.

(We would, however, highly recommend all of the other Scalzi novels mentioned above.)

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s taking a break from writing at the moment after finishing work translating Rodolfo Montes de Oca’s Venezuelan Anarchism: The History of a Movement.  After collapsing in exhaustion, he’ll resume work shortly on the Free Radicals sequel, an unrelated sci-fi novel, and a nonfiction book on the seamier sides of Christianity.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover