Posts Tagged ‘Fantasy’

(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


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 unexpected and 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. 

Another similarity is that the protagonists in both the Laundry Files novels and The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.  work for 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.


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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

Insistence of Vision, by David Brin, cover(Insistence of Vision, by David Brin. The Story Plant, 2016, 374 pp., $26.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon


Well, this is a first: I’m more enthusiastic about the front matter of a book than its contents. (This is not a slam on the stories in the book; it’s just a comment regarding how much I enjoyed Brin’s introductory essay.) More often than not, I skip the front matter, especially in sci-fi books, but in this case the title of Brin’s preface, “The Heresy of Science Fiction,” hooked me. As I read it, I found myself repeatedly muttering “Yes!” as Brin made one cogent point after another.

Here’s an example:

By far dominant in nearly all human societies has been a Look Back attitude . . . a nostalgic belief that the past contained at least one shining moment — or Golden Age — when people and their endeavors were better than today. . . . You find this thim in everything from the Bible to Tolkien to Crichton — a dour reflex that views change as synonymous with deterioration. The grouchiness of grandpas who proclaim that everything — even folks — had been finer in the past.

Compare this attitude to the uppity Look Ahead zeitgeist: That humanity is on a rough and difficult, but ultimately rewarding upward path. That past utopias were fables. That any utopias lie ahead of us, to be achieved . . .

[Science fiction] retains this notion. That it is possible — perhaps just barely — that our brightest days may lie ahead. Indeed, that is science fiction’s greatest trait, distinguishing it from almost all others genres. . . .

The new type of [science fiction] tragedy — a cautionary tale — may change your future decisions. . . . As millions who read Nineteen Eighty-Four vowed to fight Big Brother, and other millions who watched Soylent Green became fervent environmentalists.

In contrast, what is the implicit assumption in most fantasy tales, novels and films? Apparently, the form of government that ruled most human societies since the discovery of grain must always govern us. Royalty and lordly families. Priestly castes and solitary, secret, mages . . . the roll call of standarde characters going back at least four thousand years. . . .

But for all the courage and heroism shown by fantasy characters . . . what has happened by the end of these stories? Good may have triumphed over evil and the land’s people may be happier under Aragorn than they would have been under Sauron. But “under” is their only choice.

It would be easy to quote further illuminating passages, but I won’t — go out, buy this book, and read Brin’s essay.

The stories in Insistence of Vision cover a wide range chronologically, in form, and in subject matter. One commonality in almost all of them, though, is that they’re intended to make the reader think, not just put his or her mind in neutral and enjoy a good but pointless tale (such sci-fi tales being all too common).

Regarding content, the stories range from a claustrophobic tale of undersea dwellers surviving an alien invasion (“The Tumbledown of Cleopatra Abyss”), to a more optimistic “mash-up” (a cringe-inducing term, best avoided) retelling of War of the Worlds written in the style of Jules Verne. To an overtly political story about resistance to illegitimate authority, “Eloquent Elepents Pine Away for the Moon’s Crystal Forests.” As with almost all short story collections, the quality of the stories varies from high points such as “Eloquent Elepants” to a few others which could have been omitted with no loss, such as the cautionary tale about Von Neumann machines — a topic beaten to death decades ago.

But the high points are very real. Fans of Brin’s Uplift trilogies will be overjoyed that Brin has returned to that “universe” with a new novella, “The Other Side of the Hill,” that takes up where the final book of the second trilogy leaves off. In his comments following the piece, Brin hints that there’s more to come. One can only hope so.

One rather strange feature of Insistence of Vicion is that there’s no price printed on the back cover nor on the top of the front inside cover flap. This seems rather self-defeating, as most potential buyers will likely be put off by the lack of a visible cover price. (I was able to discern the price only because I know how to read the numbers above the bar code.)

Another strange feature is that there’s no list near the front of the book of where and when the stories originally appeared. This is a minor oddity, but it is odd.

Still, all things considered, I haven’t enjoyed a book of short stories by a single author so much since I read Terry Bisson’s collection, TVA Baby.

Highly recommended.

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

Free Radicals front cover


Murdstone Trilogy cover(The Murdstone Trilogy, by Mal Peet. Candlewick Press, 2014, 313 pp., $18.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon


Twenty years ago, I was leafing through Publishers Weekly and checked on the trade paperback bestsellers. PW lists the top 20, and of those 20, four were “Chicken Soup for the Soul” titles, including Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul. When I saw that, I put the magazine down and growled, “Just shoot me now!”

At about the same time, while brooding on the sales of my books (good by small press standards, but that’s not even sufficient to maintain one in genteel poverty) I noticed in another issue of PW that many of the trade paperback and hardback bestsellers were New Age (rhymes with “sewage,” as noted by Penn & Teller) titles, and that the number one book was something called The Secret

At that point, I said to myself, “Self, how hard can it be to write one of these things?” So, I scoured thrift stores and bought The Secret, The Celestine Prophecy, Mutant Messenger from Down Under, and a couple more similar, and now mercifully forgotten, titles–doing my best to hide my shame at the checkout counter.

Then I started to read. Within a few pages, I was muttering, “What kind of person could write this crap?” Within a few more, I was muttering, “What kind of person could read this crap?!” It was the old Prosperity Gospel junk heap, repackaged in New Age you-create your-own-reality garb: if you want something badly enough, it will “manifest,” become real–an absurd premise that begs the question, “If everyone ‘creates their own reality,’ then in the 1940s did six million Jews, including small children and infants, choose to be exterminated by the Nazis?”

In the end, I couldn’t do it. I abandoned the project. At the time, I rationalized that abandonment on the grounds that my contempt for the readers of New Age pap would seep through my writing. In reality, it was because I became almost physically ill at the thought of reading any more New Age narcissism, and I became even more distressed at the thought of writing any of it.

Which brings us, finally, to  The Murdstone Trilogy. When I read the description of the book on the dust jacket, I was hooked. It reads:

Philip Murdstone is in trouble. Flat broke. His star has waned. No one wants his novels about sensitive teenage boys. So his ruthless agent, Minerva Cinch,  convinces him that his only hope is to write a sword-and-sorcery blockbuster. High Fantasy, specifically, or, to be more precise, Phantasy with a p-h. Unfortunately, Philip–allergic to the faintest trace of anything Tolkien–is utterly unsuited to the task.

In Philip’s darkest, whiskey-fueled hour, a dwarfish stranger comes to his rescue. But the deal Philip makes with Pocket Wellfair turns out to have Faustian consequences.

So, to a great extent I identified with The Murdstone Trilogy‘s protagonist; I even shared his extreme distaste for fantasy (sorry, Phantasy). Then I began to read, and wasn’t disappointed. In The Murdstone Trilogy, author Mal Peet–a successful writer of children’s and YA fiction–created a new genre: fantasy-satire. Portions of the book, especially in its first half, are extremely funny. The narrative, spiced with whimsical names, such as that of Murdstone’s “local” (pub), “The Gelder’s Rest,”  hits the ground running. Minerva’s prescription for writing a fantasy novel, a few pages into the Trilogy, is a scream. It’s quite lengthy, so I can’t quote it in full, but here are few excerpts:

The world–Realm is the proper term–of High Fantasy is sort of medieval. Well, preindustrial anyway. Something like Devon, I imagine. Vaguely socialist in an idyllic, farmerish–is that a word?–sort of a way. But the Realm has fallen under the power of a Dark Lord. . . .

Anyway, the Dark Lord is served by minions. That’s a word you must use.

The young hero lives in a remote village in the farthest Shire–that’s another must, Shire, OK–of the Realm. He thinks he’s an orphan, but he’s a prince, of course.

And so on, for six wonderful pages. Peet also indulges in a fair amount of low comedy, as in the following passage describing Philip’s undertaking of research for his fantasy-writing project:

So tomorrow — yes, tomorrow — why not? — he would visit the [library] and carry off whatever Phantastickal, Magickal, and Phantasmagorickal crap they had in stock and work his way through every last page. Although, given the choice, he would rather endure an operation for hemorrhoids.

As if the thought had conjured it, an appalling spasm forked through Philip’s innards. Even as he doubled up and fell to his knees on the hearth rug, he knew its cause. The farmhouse scrumpy had made alchemical contact with the Mexican Platter and, perhaps catalyzed by the rhubarb and chocolate torts with Pernod cream followed by brandy, had triggered a seismic eruption. Just behind his navel, something huge and grotesque hatched from its egg. A brutal fist hammered at the door of his bowels.

With the help of the “greme,” Pocket Wellfair, Philip soon produces a blockbuster fantasy novel, Dark Entropy. In the wake of its success, Philip’s agent Minerva manages to get Philip a million pound advance (on royalties) for the still-unwritten second book in the trilogy, at which point Philip’s troubles really begin.

This all occurs early on. Rather than describe any more of the plot, I’ll just mention that Peet’s writing is near flawless. The reader’s (mine anyway) suspension of disbelief is total. And that’s largely why I found The Murdstone Trilogy‘s conclusion unsatisfying–it works, yes, but it’s unsatisfying.

Upon finishing the book last night, I thought about why that might be. Had Peet provided clues along the way? Yes? Had he provided foreshadowing? Yes.

This morning, I woke up and went “Ahh! That’s it!”  Peet hadn’t played fair with the reader. So as not to spoil the book, I’ll mention only that one scene late in the book involving Philip’s neighbors, especially the vicar and his sexton, is inconsistent with the conclusion. That’s a pity, because Peet could have omitted, or even slightly altered, that scene, and have avoided the inconsistency.

But this is a relatively minor problem. Overall, The Murdstone Trilogy is one of the most amusing books I’ve read in ages.

Highly recommended.

Mal Peet died last year of cancer at age 67. The Murdstone Trilogy is his only adult novel. His death  was a tragedy for Peet, his friends and family, and for readers. I’d have loved to have read more.

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–Zeke Teflon is the author of the science fiction novel Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals front cover