Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

Iain M. Banks

“Ferbin’s father had had the same robustly pragmatic view of religion as he’d had of everything else. In his opinion, only the very poor and downtrodden really needed religion, to make their laborious lives more bearable. People craved self-importance, they longed to be told that they mattered as individuals, not just as part of a mass of people or some historical process. They needed the reassurance that while their life might be hard, bitter and thankless, some reward would be theirs after death. Happily for the governing class, a well-formed faith also kept people from seeking recompense in the here and now, through riot, insurrection or revolution.

“A temple was worth a dozen barracks; a militia man carrying a gun could control a small unarmed crowd only for as long as he was present; however, a single priest could put a policeman inside the head of every one of their flock, for ever.”

Iain M. Banks, Matter

Charles Stross

“A princess is the larval reproductive host in the life cycle of a parasitic hereditary dictatorship.”

— “Kurt Douglas” in Charles Stross’s terrific new novel, Dark State

(review coming shortly)

We published about 250 posts in 2017, and consider the following the 50 best. We’ve divided them into categories to make navigating easier; as with our past “best of” lists, the Humor, Politics, Religion, Music, and Science Fiction categories account for most of the posts. (Because several of the posts fit into more than one category, they appear in more than one place.) We hope you enjoy them.






Civil Liberties





Science Fiction

Artemis, by Andy Weir front cover(Artemis, by Andy Weir. Crown, 2017, $27.00, 305 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Three years ago, Andy Weir’s debut sci-fi novel, The Martian, arose out of the morass of self-published books, the vast majority of which never go anywhere. (Over 800,000 self-published books appeared last year alone; typical lifetime sales figures for such books are in the range of 100 to 200 copies.)

The Martian, a near-future novel about a stranded astronaut, was the best hard sci-fi novel to appear in ages. So, like many other readers, I’ve been eagerly awaiting Weir’s next book.

Like The Martian, Artemis is a near-future hard sci-fi novel that features a plucky, oftentimes funny protagonist who overcomes difficulty after difficulty, often of a technical nature. (The difficulties in The Martian are almost exclusively of a technical nature.) Also, as in The Martian, Weir gets the science right, weaving it into the story without ever condescending to the reader; and both novels take place in familiar near-space settings: Mars and the moon, respectively. Another similarity is the quality of the writing: it’s concise and flows in large part due to Weir’s consistent use of active voice, his avoidance of adjectives and adverbs, and his avoidance of taking off on tangents.

The Martian, by Andy WeirThe differences between the two books lie primarily in their protagonists, the difficulties they face, and their goals. In The Martian, the protagonist is Matt Watley, who uses his ingenuity and scientific knowledge to solve one after another seemingly intractable technical problems in order to survive; in Artemis, the protagonist is Jasmine (“Jazz”) Bashara, a markedly immature, young lapsed Muslim and petty smuggler who uses her wits and technical knowledge in order to survive and to pursue wealth. On the surface, she seems an unlikely, unlikable protagonist, but Weir manages to make her into one through exploration of her rough background and through her having a consistent moral code.

Shortly after Artemis begins, Jazz finds herself hired by a smuggling client to take part in a major criminal operation, and quickly finds herself in way over her head. At that point, the string of seemingly intractable problems and ingenious solutions begin, and continue nonstop through the rest of the book.

As for weaknesses in Artemis, there are a few. The primary one is that the outcomes at the end of the book are just a little too neat, and that on reflection one of the most important (involving an ownership transfer) seems possible but far from inevitable. Weir presents this outcome so smoothly, though, that it’s easy to let it slide by; only when you think about it a bit will you realize, “Hey! That doesn’t necessarily follow.”

I’d have enjoyed Artemis more if I hadn’t previously read The Martian — the similarities are just too great: a plucky, wise-cracking protagonist facing and overcoming technical problem after technical problem. Because of that, Artemis wasn’t as fresh and surprising as The Martian. But it’s still a very good book.


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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. He hopes to complete at least two of those projects over the next year.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover





(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 best 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 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 (perhaps done 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