04
Apr
13

Book Review: Pirate Sun (Virga #3) by Karl Schroeder

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So, what is vigra?  Virga is a meteorological term referring to visible streaks of precipitation that evaporate before touching the ground.  In contrast, Karl Schroeder’s world of Virga is much more interesting.  It’s a structure similar to a Dyson sphere: 5,000 miles in diameter, warmed in part by a large artificial sun in the center called Cadesce, and filled with enough air and moisture to sustain life.  The light of Candesce only reaches so far, however, and many nations cluster around their own, smaller suns.  Where Virga really becomes interesting is it’s lack of real gravity.  Towns, cities, and entire nations exist in freefall, making their own gravity with rotating wheel-towns.  This makes a larger portion of the planet’s interior viable for habitation than, say, that of a Ringworld-type ring would have. The people in Virga use kerosene lanterns and jets to warm their homes and keep their wood-and-metal town-wheels spinning.  Airships are similarly made out of wood and steel.  It’s steam-punkish without the historical anachronism, and it’s a world filled with pure sensawunda.  You can read more about the world by looking at this page and this page from Schroeder’s website, where he explains the world of Virga and has some helpful illustrations.

Following the harrowing events of the first book in the Virga series,  Sun of Suns, the cunning Venera Fanning was floating lost in the airs of Virga until she landed in the crumbling remains of the massive cylindrical metropolis of Spire.  Her adventures there covered the second book in the Virga series, Queen of Candesce.  At the end of the first book, Venera’s husband Admiral Chaison Fanning had successfully prevented the pirate nation of Falcon Formation from destroying his home of Rush, but he was captured in the process.  Pirate Sun picks up Chaison’s story.  After being imprisoned and tortured, a jailbreak springs Chaison, a young member of his former flagship’s crew, and a former Rush ambassador into the endless reaches of Virga.  Alone, friendless, and starving, they are rescued by a mysterious woman from the outer reaches of the world.  This strange woman, who promises to lead Chaison and his companions through the hostile airs of Falcon Formation and back to their home nation of Rush, obviously has ulterior motives, but what choice does Chaison have?  Their journey will be fraught with hazards, both natural and man-mae.  There will be daring escapes, political intrigue, friends who become enemies, enemies who become friends, war, revolution, and the appearance of an advanced technological threat from the cold void of space that has finally, after  many years of patience, breached Virga’s protective cordons.

What Pirate Sun Does Well

I’m currently averaging one of Shcroeder’s Virga books per year.  There’s no reason for it, but one possible good thing about reading through this series so slowly is that I am continually dazzled by the literal world building.  Virga’s lack of gravity compels its inhabitants to make their own by spinning large wheels or, as we see in this book, using more innovative rotational techniques to generate the centrifugal force necessary to generate some g-forces.  This makes for some spectacular mind candy as Schroeder creates vertigo-inducing city-scapes made by giant, rotating wheels of wood and metal.  Some of these cities are made of a single giant wheel, others are made of gigantic pinwheel arrangements of wheels, and many are migratory: they move about Virga.  There is a spectacular battle scene later on in the book in which two towns go to war, merging into one another and letting the loser’s town become integrated into the winner’s.  I could go on and on.  To topi tall off, it’s all integrated well without resorting to too much heavy-handed exposition.

The inventiveness of the cities of Virga is matched by the innovation Schroeder gives its inhabitants, who have to find a way to live, work, and even fight in a constantly moving and shifting world.  The ways characters constantly adjust to shifts in gravity, shifts in perspective, and to the requirements of living in a shifting world where they can see the other end of town by looking up (barf) makes the world feel lived-in and believable.  Action scenes are good and once again provide nice mind-candy as they are driven by maneuvers in a three dimensional space where up can become down and turn back again in the blink of an eye.  I get motion sick in cars and planes (not bad, but enough to make me uncomfortable), so I think I would be terrible at living in Virga. The tech in this world is steampunk-ish, and so there is a mix of gunfights, sword fights, and ship-to-ship dogfights.  My first encounter with this kind of thinking about combat and maneuvering came from reading about Ender Wiggins teach his classmates how to win their zero-g wargame.  Think of the fight scenes in the Virga series like Ender’s Game on crack.

Venera Fanning is one of my favorite female characters in SF, because she seems (to me at least) to resist easy stereotype.  She is cunning and conniving on one hand, but sympathetic and very human on the other.  Far from being an oil-and-water mix, it makes her character interesting to me.  Her husband, Chaison, is the star of this novel, however, and I was afraid that I would quickly tire of his chivalric attitude, but he came across as honorable without being a bore.  In the end I enjoyed his point of view, more-so than that of the new female character that was introduced (who had fairly cliched ulterior motives).

The tension and drama is built and paced well, and the novel engages the characters in engaging dilemmas regarding their principles and priorities.  We get to learn more about just what the heck Virga is, who put it there, and why, and we get a glimpse of the larger game being played in the series with some chilling premonitions about what may be to come.

Where Pirate Sun could Have Been Better

I can see some readers tiring of Chaison’s goody-goody schtick.  It didn’t bother me, and I found him to be a bit more complicated than I first anticipated, but I can see how it might bug some other readers who were hoping for a return to Venera.

The big plot, the larger arc of the series, begins to be revealed just a bit in this book, although I found the exposition regarding what Virga is to be confusing.  It’s done via a weird mind-meld between one central character and something from outside Virga, and maybe it was the nature of the event but it seemed like a very fast and loose overview when I was hoping for something more concrete.  I think I see what far-future speculation that Schroeder is shooting for, but I would have liked something more concrete.  Perhaps he is trying to maintain an air of mystery about the whole thing so that he can still effectively tease the reader with premonitions and possibilities later on, but that whole part of the book left me feeling unsatisfied.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, however, I was very happy with Pirate Sun.  In his world of Virga, Schroeder has built a very dynamic setting that he can use as a rich toolbox for action, adventure, mind-boggling settings, and darn cool speculation.  It had been a long time since I had read the second book in this series, but Pirate Sun did what I feel every sequel should do: present new experiences while reinvesting me in what attracted me to the series in the first place.  I look forward to picking up the next installment.

Score: 4.5

30
Mar
13

SF Cover Showcase: Women in Peril

This is part of a series of posts focusing on good and the very, very bad in SF cover art, with each post focusing on a specific author, genre, or theme.  Of course, the best site showcasing bad SF cover art is, hands down, the blog Good Show Sir.

Science Fiction and Fantasy cover art, like the comic book industry, has never been known for its even-handed depiction of women.  Like many comic books, women on the covers of a great deal of science fiction and fantasy covers (particularly the older stuff) are often ridiculously clad and ridiculously proportioned.  What’s more is that they are often portrayed in positions of physical, if not also sexual, peril.  This post is exploring, not celebrating, the absurdity of this history.

Sex and Violence

Two elements that pervade the depiction of women in especially old SF covers (the pulp stuff) are sex and violence.  Not only are the women there to be ogled at as sexual beings, but they are also quite often the focus of impending violence.  The intertwining of sex and violence is meant to heighten the thrill for the viewer and encourage sales.  The cover below, while not Science Fiction  is a good example of this intertwining of the promises of sex and violence in the covers of the pulp era.

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What is funny about this one (funny in the sense of the horrifically absurd) is that the gun is completely superfluous in this situation.  The woman is already a captive in some kind of tube (which I’ve seen several times while doing searches for covers for this post), but we might as well bring it out to make sure the audience is 100% certain that this woman is under duress, as though there was a chance of the point not hitting home.  With covers like this (and this one is tame compared to some others I’ve seen from the same time), it’s no wonder that Wertham and his cronies were worried about the effect comics and pulp books would have on kids.  This cover is an extreme example of the mix of sex and violence that characterized a lot of covers from the pulp era and is still present, in varying degrees, today.

Shameless Fan Service

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Judging from cover art, I would say that Burrough’s Barsoom is about a planet populated with monsters that steal women’s bras, which the well-muscled John Carter must then retrieve by force.  I’m sure this was an allure for the target audience of adolescent males.  Illustrators like Michael Whelan and Frank Frazetta were revered for their iconic depictions of this series and others (like Conan) if not the genre in general.  Frazetta boasted that he never read the books before doing the art, and that he expected most of the people who bought the books didn’t mind because most of them probably didn’t even read them.  I wonder what he thought people were doing with his book covers then…

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Too Sexy for My Space Suit

Lesson #12 I learned from comic books and pulp SF covers: men may be stronger than women, but women are clearly tougher.  Why else would they run into battle and into space with armor and clothing that only barely covers them?

this peep show aint gonna last long if she doesn't have a space suitThey better get to sinnin’ quick before she dies of explosive decompression.

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What gets me in this image is how the man is covered head to toe in his space suit, but the woman is apparently counting on her sultriness to protect her from the cold void of space.  Also note the hint of violence or abduction here as her right wrist is literally bound by a chain the man is holding.

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These two are interesting because while they do show women ridiculously clad (and in the image on the right we once again have a woman relying on her sexiness to protect her like the man’s space suit protects him), they also show women in more powerful, aggressive positions.  They even seem to be saving the men, which is an interesting reversal of sorts.

Kidnapped by the Other

In literary and critical theory, the “other” refers to something or someone that is “not me,” or “not us.”  We define “others” in terms of what we are not, and consequently they can become projections of what we detest.  This next section is going to show covers of the “other”, aliens or some other beings, kidnapping and/or threatening women.  This theme has always been somewhat confusing to me, as it portrays monsters, aliens, and even robots as having something akin to a human sexual desire.

The Lusty Robot

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I think this Robot and Jabba the Hutt shop at the same lingerie shop.  What gets me about this one are the clearly non-robot eyes of the robot; these are very human eyes, and they are very hungry eyes too.

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For those of you wondering, yes it is THAT Leslie Nielson, and this one of his few “straight” (as in non-comedic) roles.  The “passed out woman” is a common pose in such covers and movie posters.

Lusty Humanoids and Other Creatures

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Not only are these aliens interested in kidnapping only scantily-clad women, but they also seem to have subdued the human cities by turning them into giant litter boxes.  Thank God the alien apocalypse didn’t disturb these women’s beauty sleep, or even require them to put on anything more protective than a see-through nighty!

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This theme of the woman being abducted or about to be physically/sexually assaulted by a non-human creature is a very common one.  Why?  It’s disturbing, to be sure, although out of all of these images I feel most disturbed by the facial expression on the woman in the top right cover in the above grouping (she looks into it, which is weird).

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So where the hell does this all come from?

In his monograph on science fiction, SF author Adam Roberts alludes to the idea that the form of SF allows affords a more level playing field for portraying women and minorities thanks to the infinite possibilities allowed within the genre(s).  Within SF, we can imagine a break from traditional rules and conventions regarding race, gender, and social norms.  This being the case, why have portrayals of women like the ones in the above illustrations dominated early SF and why are they still a significant influence today?  In part this is because SF pulps, like pulp comic books, were primarily written by men and targeted towards young men.

Still, it’s always been strange to me that aliens, robots, or otherworldly creatures are depicted as abducting scantily clad women with the strong suggestion that their desires for them are libidinous (despite the fact that the parts may not be compatible and/or they may find us just as repulsive as we find them).  So, what the hell is going on there?  I think it’s part of a longer tradition of depicting women as being in peril from the “other,” and it’s a chance for me to dig into some of my old graduate papers.

Years ago I had a 19th century poetry and prose class, and one genre we read was the captivity narrative.   The “captivity narrative” was a popular sensationalist genre based on real and fictionalized accounts of women who were abducted by native Americans.   The image below is a painting of one of the most sensationalized murders by native Americans in colonial history: the killing of Jane McRea  in 1777.  This painting is sometimes used as cover art for collections of captivity narratives, and we can see in its mix of sexual and physical threat some of the same themes in later SF cover art.  Just the way women are manhandled in some of the SF covers above put my mind to these captivity narratives and their illustrations.

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My research project for the course was a paper/presentation on the artistic representations of Daniel Boone in the 19th century (after his death).  Boone’s life has been called “malleable property” because it was easily appropriated by artists for purposes of propaganda, namely for the cause of Manifest Destiny (screw the natives and push on until America stretches from coast to coast).  There are some interesting parallels between some of the SF covers above and the  portrayal of women in 19th-century sensationalist art depicting the “Red Threat” (no, not communists).  Such art was used as propaganda for justifying the violence done towards native Americans, and we can see similar approaches in SF cover art depicting aliens or other beings who are kidnapping or threatening women. I’m not saying that Indians=Aliens, but that both are used in sensationalist art work as part of a process of building rancor towards the “other” (the “not us”) by showing them as violating our women-folk.

One frequently-appropriated event from Boone’s life that is applicable here is the kidnapping of his daughter and two of her friends by a small band of Cherokee-Shawnee in 1776.  Jemima Boone and the Calloway sisters were taking a boat trip near Boonesboro, Kentucky when they were snatched by natives who waited until their boat came near the shore.  Daniel Boone’s race to rescue his daughter and her friends has become a big part of his legend, and inspired the rescue scene in both the book and film versions of Last of the Mohicans. This narrative was popular particularly in the 1840’s and 50’s when Manifest Destiny became the watchword for justifying westward expansion at the expense of the native’s rights to their lands and, indeed, their lives.

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This depiction of Five Indians and a Captive by Charles Wimar (1855) isn’t directly of Jemima Boone, although it sometimes thought to be so.  While the woman’s hands look bound, the scene is almost placid.   Freud might make something about all the phallic symbols present like the rifles and the oars, but you know what, Sigmund?  Sometimes a 10 foot oar being wielded by a heavily muscled Indian Brave is just a 10-foot oar being wielded by a heavily muscled Indian Brave.

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Now Wimar’s 1853 version of the 1776 is much more popular.  This depiction of the kidnapping does look a lot more like some of the SF covers presented above.  This is more of a classic example of the captivity theme.   The Calloway sisters (who were taken with Jemima) are completely absent, and instead the composition focuses on Jemima Boone as she clasps her hands together, seemingly in prayer.  Her blouse has slipped over her naked shoulder, and as Merideth Mason Brown observes “he triangular form of the brown drapery falling across her arms hints at the shape of female genitalia, while the brilliant red drapery at her knees hints at the bloody prospect of sexual violation.” Yikes.

Jemima Boone and the Calloway sisters were not violated, however.  In fact, the captivity was not as terrible as depictions would have us believe. Jemima Boone, years after the event, would spoke favorably of her captors, stating “The Indians were real kind to us, as much so as they could have been, or their circumstances allowed.”  Jemima and the Calloway sisters  indicated that while the they did everything possible to alert their fathers (whom they hoped were giving chase) as to which direction had gone, their captors were quite patient and gentle with them.  The girls would intentionally fall off of the pony they were loaded onto to slow their captors down and give their rescuers time to catch up.  As Michael Lofaro describes it:

[the girls] covertly kicked, pinched, and pricked the pony [they were on] in every way possible to get him to rear or buck and followed the previous pattern of falling to the ground with a piercing yell. At first the Indians merely put them back on the beast, but the tumbles continued. One patient brave mounted the pony to demonstrate to his three very slow pupils how it could be managed…These must have been the most indulgent kidnappers on record: the girls’ behavior was obnoxious enough to warrant death time and again by Indian code. Betsey Calloway was the only one punished—the frustrated pony bit her arm.

Betsey Calloway even poured hot coals on one Indian’s moccasins for teasingly pulling at her hair, and the other Indian’s only reaction was to find the event entertaining. It did not appear that the girls were in as much immediate danger as certain portrayals of the event would have us believe, but fears of miscegenation have fueled racist ire time and again.  This one event illustrates how women in peril from the “other” can be used as a strong propaganda tool as it presses several hot buttons for viewers.  There was even outside of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. portraying this event in Boone’s life (while it was titled “The Rescue,” everyone who looked at it saw the story of Daniel and Jemima Boone).  It was there until 1958, even though it was deeply unpopular for many, many years.

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Sooo, back to Science Fiction…

Now, I’m not saying that captivity narratives and the depictions of Jemima Boone’s kidnapping directly influenced Science Fiction cover art, but rather that the depiction of the damsel in distress being kidnapped by the monstrous “other” is a theme with a history much larger than Science Fiction and the pulps of the 20th century.  The threat of physical and sexual violence towards women from a creature regarded as sub-human is part of a larger pattern of sensationalism in advertising and propaganda, and for many years it has worked quite well.  While things are changing, the tendencies towards such sensational and ridiculous depictions of women will continue because it is so deeply entrenched in our culture, although some authors and artists, like fantasy author Jim Hines, are pushing back.  I’f you’ve read this blog post up to this point, then take a moment to look at this article.

22
Mar
13

WOGF Book Review: Boneshaker (Clockwork Century 1) by Cherie Priest

This is my third book reviewed for the 2013 Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Worlds Without End, which has a wonderful database of award-winning SF.  WWEnd has been a valuable companion to me in my efforts to broaden and deepen my appreciation of the genre(s).  The goal of the challenge is to read 12 women SF authors you have never read before and write 12 reviews within the year.  There are prizes for the best, most illuminating reviews, so check it out!

It is the late 19th century. The American Civil War has carried on for over a decade, and the America’s northwestern territories are mostly left to fend for themselves.  On a commission from the Russian government, inventor Leviticus Blue creates a mighty machine, the Boneshaker, whose drill was intended to pierce the tough rock and permafrost in the vast oil fields of the Alaskan territories. Before its unveiling, however, Blue’s machine was turned on. The Boneshaker tore through his laboratory and through the underground of a great chunk of Seattle, in what would later become the state of Washington. Buildings collapsed, people and structures fell into massive sinkholes, and a noxious gas that turned people into rotting, cannibalistic monsters was released. Panic ensued, and in the confusion a well-respected lawman, Maynard Wilkes, went into the heart of the blight-gassed streets and released a mass of prisoners, possibly to help him take advantage of the chaos and rob the now-vulnerable banking district. Well, Wilkes died, Blue disappeared, and a great wall went up around downtown Seattle to cordon off the blight-filled streets and the rotters, the living dead, who now dwelt there

No one forgot Blue or Wilkes, and a decade and a half later Briar Wilkes-Blue is still a pariah in what is left of the outskirts of Seattle thanks to the deeds of her dead lawman father (Maynard) and her disappeared madman husband (Blue). All she has is her teenage son, Zeke, who has become obsessed with rehabilitating his father’s and his grandfather’s legacies. Bent on this task, Zeke disappears into the walled city to find evidence exonerating his father from the Boneshaker disaster. Briar chases after him, and the two, separated in the blight-gas-filled streets, will find that there is more than rotters and empty buildings to worry about in the devastation left by the mighty Boneshaker.

What Boneshaker Does Well

I’ve read several mixed reviews of this book, which is why I was surprised to find out just how well Boneshaker started off. Here we have a vivid image of a woman struggling to get by, working in a water purification plant that cleans the water poisoned by the gas her husband let loose in his drilling machine. Her co-workers and neighbors frequently remind her of her husband’s deeds, making her a pariah. Her son, Zeke, meanwhile embraces the memory of his grandfather, a lawman whose dying deed is misunderstood by polite society, but embraced by the lower classes. The tensions between Briar and the three most important men in her life (her father, her husband, and her son) make for quite a nice setup to this adventure story. Zeke is also the spitting image of a defiant teen eager to go to extremes for what he feels is the right thing, despite the consequences. This restless spirit is what leads him to foray into the city to find evidence of his father’s innocence in the Boneshaker disaster. Briar feels estranged from her son not due to a lack of love, but due to a sense that she has failed him and that he has been dealt a bad hand in life due to the men in her’s, and her pursuit of Zeke into the city is as much born of a mother’s love as it is a desperate need to reconcile with him for what she feels are her failings. It’s good drama and, the need to see these two reconciled kept me going in this book.

This book’s millieu combines steampunk (the use of advanced machinery for the time period, powered by steam and/or clockwork) and zombies, which at first I thought was too much but I think they worked together in the end. We have airships, which were available during the time period (observation balloons were used by military since around the turn of the 18th/19th century) but were not as sophisticated as these armored airships meant for warfare. The real interesting stuff comes in when our protagonists enter the cordoned off areas of Seattle, which are occupied by stubborn groups of survivors who use technology to pump clean air down from above the blight clouds, create sealed “safe zones,” design gas-masks (which did not become very sophisticated until the 20th century) and build new and strange weapons to fend off the hordes of rotters who still infest the streets over a decade after the Boneshaker crisis. The remains of old Seattle and how its human denizens deal with both the toxic blight gas and the zombies that it creates form the speculative brain candy for the book, and overall I found it to be an interesting mix.

 

Where Boneshaker Could Have Been Better

While I think the book started out very well, it didn’t quite live up to its potential in my opinion. The first thing I noticed that shook my confidence in how well this book would live up to the promise made in the first chapters was that the majority of people that Zeke and especially Briar ran into were far too nice. This story made me think quite a bit of an inverted Wizard of Oz story, in part because we have protagonists who enter a dark and hostile land filled with terrors with a masked, evil genius wizard at the center of it all (who may or may not be Leviticus Blue). Given that basic structure, and the tenor of most zombie stories, I expected the average denizens of the city to be more threatening, distrustful, duplicitous, suspicious, and flat out dangerous to newcomers like Zeke and Briar than they were. Outlaws and survivors in the city revere the legacy of Maynard Wilkes, and that acts as a surprising shield for both mother and son, but even given that I didn’t sense much menace from any of the characters, including the out-and-out villains. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop (for that surprising, yet inevitable betrayal to happen), and then I realized that it was never going to, which took the teeth out of the tension the book was trying to build. Even the principle antagonist, the grand poobah inventor who was running the criminal rackets at the heart of the broken city wasn’t very intimidating; we were told he was evil and repulsive, but it wasn’t quite felt.

The overall lack of menace from other characters made the action fall kind of flat, because I never felt that our principle characters were in enough danger for me to get worried. They have close calls to be sure, but it failed to tantalize as much as it could have. While that dynamic between Zeke and Briar felt very real and drove me through the story beyond the difficulties I have just discussed, other characters felt kind of flat and like they were, occasionally, just there to deliver exposition about what was going on or how the city was run or what this gadget was, etc.

Of course, my feeling of missed potential for real, nail-biting tension might just be a matter of taking the wrong approach to the book.  I expected dark and dreary, with characters in harsh settings that reveal the dark and un-trusting sides of human nature.  What I got was a much lighter read than that, zombies and all.  I think that if I went into this looking just for a light (though not light-hearted) adventure that I would have been more satisfied.

Concluding Thoughts

This book started out with a lot of promise for me, and I was definitely on board when things got rolling, but the peril the characters were placed failed to excite or worry me.  This definitely affected my investment in the story, and while overall Boneshaker was an enjoyable experience, I can’t help but feel that it would have been more so of it pushed the envelope more and showed the world as nastier and more brutish.  If you go into this book expecting something lighter, however, you should still be able to enjoy it.

Score: 3/5

16
Feb
13

WOGF Book Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

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This is my second book reviewed for the 2013 Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Worlds Without End, which has a wonderful database of award-winning SF.  WWEnd has been a valuable companion to me in my efforts to broaden and deepen my appreciation of the genre(s).  The goal of the challenge is to read 12 women SF authors you have never read before and write 12 reviews within the year.  There are prizes for the best, most illuminating reviews, so check it out!

What if your guilt was visible for everyone to see?  Suppose your crimes actually granted you special powers, like some inverted superhero story.  Would the powers be worth being set apart from the rest of humanity, or would the magic only make that isolation worse?

Zoo City, winner of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award, follows former journalist Zinzi December.  Zinzi has been isolated from much of humanity due to the baggage she carries: a lingering drug habit, massive debt to her dealer, a bad email scam habit, guilt for her brother’s death, and a sloth.  Zinzi is one of the animalled, or a “Zoo,” and her sloth marks her as a criminal.  Her connection to her sloth is magical, granting her the power to find lost things.  It’s also terminal, meaning that when she or it dies the Undertow will come for her and literally drag her kicking and screaming into the dark.

Zoo familiars come in all forms–mongooses, snakes, tigers, monkeys, scorpions, etc.–with a variety of special gifts and powers.  In Johannesburg, South Africa, they are segregated into a run-down ghetto called Zoo City (based on the “gray area” of the Hillbrow district of Johannesburg).  Shunned by most normals, Zoos have to get by however they can.  Zinzi, playing the Marlowe-esque character,  is hired by a reclusive music executive to find the female half of a pair of twin teenie Afro-pop stars. The problem is she doesn’t find lost people, only lost things, and her problems are compounded by the shadiness of her employers.  Her search will find her combing the dregs of Johannesburg and Zoo City, making connections with the shattered remains of her former life, struggling to cope with her debt and her flaws, all the while with Sloth on her back, non-verbally chiding her.

What Zoo City does well

The most engaging aspect of Zoo City is the way that the animal-magic novum intersects with the setting.  The specter of Apartheid is pervasive, even though I can’t think of a specific instance in which it is explicitly invoked to add to the ambiance.   Zoos are crowded into a run-down ghetto where they have to pretty much fend for themselves.  Work is scarce, utilities are slapdash, and gangs of Zoos rove the streets at night.  The wonder of the menagerie of animals bonded to humans and the powers they grant is a kind of tarnished beauty as we see the broken lives this phenomena has created.  The animal familiars made me very interested in learning these characters lives and just what they did to become bonded to their creatures.  The novum feels believable and thankfully does not use the often-appropriated cliche in American tales of secret government agencies looking to weaponize these animalled people.  Instead, these feel like real people trying their best to get by, and not revolutionaries or super heroes since this is a book that rejects the traditional notion of heroism from the get-go as it is the criminals, the underclass, that are branded with animals and powers.  This, along with the way the zoos and their powers are likened to totemic traditions in traditional African magic and medicine, creates some very interesting tensions throughout the novel: the ghetto and the modern metropolis, the relativity of innocence and guilt, magical power and social power, technology and mysticism, the natural world (animals) and the man-made jungle (the city), etc.

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the back-stories of the various zoos we are introduced to, their animals, and their abilities, are very interesting fare.  The Zoos have a variety of psychic powers, like finding things, slipping through locked doors, emotional vampirism, and others.  Despite these powers, there are significant drawbacks, as demonstrated by how Zinzi is often overwhelmed by the visions she has of people’s lost possessions   Also, if a Zoo is separated from his or her animal, there is a pretty severe mental and physical toll on both of them.  Then there is the whole being-dragged-off-to-hell thing if the animal dies.  Some think being a Zoo is cool, others that it is disgusting.  Some are understanding, and others only pretend to be in order to exploit the powers of the animalled.  All in all, the Zoos feel like real people, as do the people who love, fear,  understand, and/or revile them.

I found Zinzi to be a good protagonist in that I’m not sure whether I like her or not, and this isn’t due to a lack of character development.  She follows the traditional hard-boiled detective type: down on her luck, relationships are a mess, on the verge of being completely broke, distrusted by the authorities, distrustful of her employers, etc.  I have seen lots of characters in this mold that are crafted to be instantly sympathetic, but while I do sympathize with Zinzi there are also parts of her personality I do not like.  Her participation in a network of email scams had me livid due to my considerable experience with spam email and phone calls (may all scam-artist telemarketers be taken  by the Undertow).  She is a mixed bag of selfishness, neuroses, mixed-up guilt, indignation, good intentions, fear, etc., and I’m fine with not being sure if I like her or not.  She reads like a genuine mixed-up, messed-up person, not an archetype.  The world she lives in is morally complicated, so why shouldn’t she be as well?

Beukes includes a lot of pop fashion and media stuff in the book.  Some of it went over my head, but I did enjoy little interludes like the website comment board discussion of a documentary of one of the first noted Zoos in the world (a middle-eastern terrorist/warlord who toted a penguin in a flak jacket with him).

Where Zoo City could have been better

I like hard-boiled detective stories, but like a lot those stories, sadly, I was more interested in the depiction of the world and the narrative language itself than I was in the central investigation.  I had a hard time caring about the lives of Sbu and Song, the aforementioned Afro-pop stars.  Their lives were part of the hip lifestyle of the rich and famous and the stuff of reality TV, it seemed.  I had a hard time getting into their stories and caring about them as characters.  The ghetto of Zoo City and it’s  people seemed oh-so-much-more engaging.

I also found that I would have liked more of a focus on the powers, such as more examples of other people’s abilities and how they work.  We see a few in some detail and glimpse more, but it left me feeling a bit unsatisfied considering just how big and dynamic this novum was.  I believe that is because Beukes wasn’t trying to make the powers themselves drive the story, which I understand.

Concluding Thoughts

The Guardian‘s review of Zoo City provides an interesting link between Zoo CIty and cyberpunk:

Recommended as “very, very good” by William Gibson, this is the other face of cyberpunk, a face we’ve seen too little of in the past decade. Not the ultra-violent übermensch “future noir” (though there’s plenty of violence) but an information-drenched world that has become haunted. Thus the “animalled” may simply be a marker, like the Voudun in Gibson’s work, of the strangeness of postmodern modes of being. But true to the king of cyberpunk’s original code, this isn’t about exposition. Zoo City is about surface, décor and incident, grungey eyekicks and jive-talk for the in-crowd.

I think there is a lot of truth in this characterization of the novel, and a good indicator of how to enjoy it.  The book really works that feeling of postmodern cultural saturation and societal defamiliarization and alienation.  Like a lot of cyberpunk, though, some readers may characterize Zoo City as mostly style and surface.  I teetered on this line since I wasn’t quite moved by the core investigation plot that ostensibly drives the novel’s action, but I found enough in the novel’s novum, it’s setting, and the crazy mixed-up life of Zinzi December to appreciate it as a whole.

Score: 4/5

31
Jan
13

Book Review: Divine Misfortune by A. Lee Martinez

divinemisfortune

Teri and Phil were seemingly content with their middle-class lifestyle, that is until Phil was passed up for promotion yet again.  Until now, the couple had gotten along fine without committing to any diety from the well-advertised pantheon of personal gods, but Phil couldn’t help but notice that everyone who had been prompted past him had been giving regular tribute to one diety or another.  So to keep up with the Joneses, Phil and Terri searched the divine match-maker services for a benefactor that would fit their needs without requiring a major lifestyle change (like sawing off a hand or regular blood sacrifices).  Luka, aka Lucky the raccoon god of minor prosperity, seemed like a good fit.  While he had seen better days, he offered good turns of fortune without being pretentious about it or requiring ridiculous shows of devotion.  What Phil and Terri didn’t expect when they signed on with Lucky was that he would be crashing on their couch, throwing parties with his other god friends, and entangling the exceedingly normal couple into his feuds with other deities.  What Phil and Teri find out quickly is that signing up with a god is easy, but denying him or leaving him can have consequences that are often unpredictable, but always terrible.

What Divine Misfortune does well

The world building consists of a playful balance between mortals and their sponsoring deities, which is more of a relationship of mutual need than the latter would like to admit.  The setting is our modern world, and the gods have had to adapt as human civilization has grown and culture has changed (EX: Zeus wears a track suit).  The gods can benefit or wreak havoc upon mortals, but their power is tied to the amount of tribute they receive from their followers as well.  It puts my mind to Gaiman’s American Gods, only funnier.  A lot of gods have fallen on hard times (like Lucky and Anubis advertising themselves on a Match.com-type website for gods and followers to hook up) and we see their divine and human character flaws play out.   Most of them have simply become lazy.  There is a lot of campy fun in reading about Lucky, the god of prosperity, and Quezacotl (serpent god of the Aztecs) eating potato chips and watching tele-novellas on Phil and Teri’s TV.

The humor is well wrought as a combination of peculiar quirks of world building and cringe comedy.  While the gods have power, the lower-end ones and the out-of-practice ones are more than a bit socially inept, so a good deal of the humor is based on awkward social interactions often sparked by the gods, often unintentionally.  An example is in how the goddess of broken hearts unconsciously changes things around her into downers, like when the new ending of When Harry Met Sally where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal die in a car wreck.  Phil and Teri find that being the followers of a god of good fortune has its definite ups when Lucky is appeased, and some very awkward downs when his ire is raised.  One day their cars, computers, and phones break down and every thing that could leak, spill, or otherwise make a horrible mess does so, and the next day they hit only green lights on their way to work and are finding money by the bucket load stuck to the bottom of their shoes as they walk.

The characters may be simple types, but they are well employed and feel very distinct.  Lucky is your typical freeloader character who is confronted with a crisis that forces him to care about people as more than just beings he can mooch from for tribute, snacks, and creature comforts like cable television.  It’s your basic slacker-makes-good plot with a raccoon god of luck in the place of Seth Rogan’s typical character, but it’s entertaining.  Phil and Teri are very average everyman/everywoman characters, but not boringly bland.  Their normality has a point to it, since even though they are contending with gods they are not heroes of legend or chosen ones, which makes them actually kind of special in a world the exceptionalism of gods has descended into a kind of mediocrity.

Where Divine Misfortune could have been better

I noticed that the book skirts around dealing with the afterlife in any significant detail, and the major figures of worship in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc. are noticeably absent.  That might seem like a cop-out for a book like this, but thematically it works.  It’s easier to maintain the campy fun by focusing on other divine beings, i.e. the ones you can append all kinds of human flaws to without angering your readership.  In other words, I noticed the absence of figures from the dominant religions of today’s world, but it didn’t detract from the story for me.

Concluding thoughts

Divine Misfortune was exactly what I needed it to be: a fun little bit of comic SF theater with outlandish characters.  Martinez’s writing seems to be in the same humorous vein as Terry Pratchett: clever, funny, and satirical without descending into absurdism.  I enjoyed reading it and look forward to picking out another one of his books when I need another fun break from the serious world of academia (which will be soon, prolly).

Score: 3.0

28
Jan
13

SF Cover Showcase 1: Dune

I’m going to try something a  bit different here.  I’m very taken with books as objects.  Books are decorations, furniture, art objects in and of themselves.  I do judge a book by its cover, at least at first.  Good covers have helped me discover good books, and bad covers have kept me away from bad books and, on occasion, warded me away from a book I later enjoyed.  Of course, just as there is a lot of bad art out there there are also a lot of bad book covers, particularly in speculative fiction.  The genre hit its stride in the pulp magazine fiction era and during the paperback boom, which led to a lot of pulp schlock.  This extends to a great deal of the artwork too.  Magazine editors like John W. Campbell would often commission a story based on some cover art they bought; conversely editors would also slap artwork onto a cover if it was eye-catching and/or if they simply owned the rights to it, regardless of whether or not it went with the story.

I’m going to try a series of posts focusing on good and the very, very bad in SF cover art, with each post focusing on a specific author, genre, or theme.  Of course, the best site showcasing bad SF cover art is, hands down, the blog Good Show Sir.

For this post I decided to focus on one author, one book.  Here is some of the best and worst from Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Analog-66-03

Dune was serialized in Analog as two shorter works, the second half of which is The Prophet of Dune featured in the cover above.  I like this one a lot.   The best of the Dune covers I have seen emphasize the scale of not only them big ole sandworms but the scale and desolation of Arakkis as well.


dune

This cover was from the first paperback printing of the novel. An 11” x 15” watercolor of the art from this’n sold in 2011 for 26k! While there are no sandworms (at least I don’t think that big thing on the left side is a sandworm), it does emphasize the scale and beautiful desolation of Arakkis.

dune stigmata cover

This one looks a strange.  Everything’s a little off.  The color scheme reminds me of  bit too much of those abstract paintings from the 80s and early 90s you occasionally see in fast food restauraunts, that thopter in the background looks the wrong type of insectoid, and…well the people look like they are wearing black and turquoise klan hoods.  What weirds me out the most about this cover is that I own a copy of Phillip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich that has this same cover art (and the image has nothing to do with the story).  Recycle and reuse; this is a prime example of getting the most out of artwork you own the rights to.

dune_cover_high

This one reminds me a little bit of some Lord of the Rings art I’ve seen, in particular some Mordor scenes.  Again, I like it because it emphasizes the scale and desolation of Arakkis.  It’s thankfully not too gaudy, unlike the previous image.

dunecat

This is not a book cover…but it’s topical and lol-worthy, so here it is.

kind of looks like three wolf dune

This one reminds me of the Three Wolf Moon t-shirt phenomena on Amazon, only perhaps One Worm Moon (if you click on the link to Amazon, the action is down in the comments section).  While I’m not against the use of negative space here…if you didn’t know what you are looking at you might not figure it out.  It could be construed as some kind of alien…appendage.

oh look, he's charming nightcrawlers

I don’t think the perspective works on this one.  It looks like this guy has learned how to charm some tiny night-crawler worms.

dune-cover

And we’re back to this bit of cover art.  This one you can purchase new, with the same cover art of the 1965 Analog serialization of the book.  SF Masterworks usually has very nice covers.

If I were to use one word to describe Herbert’s Dune saga, it would be epic.  Not only is it epic in scale, it also draws a great deal on traditions of epic literature.  Consequently, the cover art should reflect this.  The sandworms and the desert are the two most iconic symbols of the series, and the best covers represent those as huge and intimidating.  The worst make them look too, well, cartoonish.

But speaking of cartoonish…

goodnight dune

This image was part of an entertaining College Humor gallery featuring cover art of five fake children books based on popular science fiction series, including Dune, Dr. Who, Star Trek, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica.  The one below is a take off of the children’s book Goodnight Moon, about a child saying goodnight to everything around.  Julia Yu, after seeing this image, wrote and illustrated an entertaining version of Goodnight Dune, which you can see by clicking this link.  The images are cartoons reminiscent of the Dune movie directed by David Lynch.

26
Jan
13

Book Review: The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

lastwerewolf

When he heard that the German was hunted down and killed, making him the only remaining werewolf in the world, Jake Marlowe knew he should feel fear, sadness, and a stubborn determination to carry on, but he couldn’t.  Jake had been mauled by a werewolf 200 years ago,and the resulting curse gave him great longevity along with the transformation into a man-eating monster once per month.  Marlowe has always been a man of means, and he has lived a full life consisting of luxury, depravity, austerity, excess, charity, atonement, etc.  Now he feels spent, like the world has nothing more to offer him.  He doesn’t even seem interested in giving the hunters from WOCOP (World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena) a token chase for his life.   Jake Marlowe feels like he’s done with the world, but the world isn’t quite done with him. Werewolf hunters, vampires  and other shadowy groups aren’t going to let the world’s last werewolf fade away into history that easily, regardless of Jake’s existential crisis.

What The Last Werewolf Does Well

The book is written in an epistolary format in the form of journals that Marlowe has been keeping to chronicle his life experience, and the most distinctive aspect of this novel is its narrative voice.  It puts my mind to Pahlaniuk from books like Fight Club, or Choke, in that it is hyperactive and almost maniacally cynical concerning popular culture, although this version of Tyler Durden would be drinking twenty-year-old scotch and sitting in an elegant Queen Anne chair while ranting on about how culture has played itself out and now is only a sad parody of itself.  It’s not snobbish exactly, but entertainingly acerbic.  Comments like “You love life because that’s all there is.  There is no God and that is His only commandment,” might sound at first glance like the prattling of a wannabe existentialist, but it sticks with you and builds an image of a man burdened by decades and centuries of seeing the human drama play out in all-too-familiar fashion.  He’s bored with the play, but the show must go on.  Marlowe’s ennui is well constructed in the world that Duncan builds through the first-person narrative:

Naturally one sets oneself challenges – Sanskrit, Kant, advanced calculus, t’ai chi – but that only addresses the problem of Time. The bigger problem, of Being, just keeps getting bigger. […] One by one I’ve exhausted the modes: hedonism, asceticism, spontaneity, reflection, everything from miserable Socrates to the happy pig. My mechanism’s worn out. I don’t have what it takes. I still have feelings but I’m sick of having them. Which is another feeling I’m sick of having. I just … I just don’t want any more life.

What saves the novel from reading like a supernatural wrist-slash narrative is that Marlowe is the only person who seems to want Marlowe to die.  Since he is the last werewolf, even the professional werewolf hunters are having existential crises about whether or not it is right to kill him.

Duncan’s spin on the traditional werewolf curse is nice as well.  In most stories I’ve seen we have a werewolf who can’t quite control what he/she does while transformed.  Like the Incredible Hulk, the beast inside can do a lot of damage regardless of the wishes of the human being inside.  In this instance, the werewolf retains a great deal of control over himself when he transforms.  He is cognizant of what he is doing, wants to do it, and chooses to do it, which in its way is more terrifying.  I don’t think Marlowe is an evil man.  He would probably describe himself as a pragmatist: when confronted with what he has to do once a month to survive, the choice becomes suicide or accepting it.  This isn’t to say he isn’t guilt ridden, as he feels his victims within him at all times (he apparently absorbs part of their essence when he eats them, which shows him impressions of their lives, their hopes, their dreams, etc.).  He has done a great deal of things to attempt to compensate for his monthly bloodlust (like substantial charity work behind the scenes), but the real monster isn’t the wolf per se, it’s more his ability to accept what he is and keep on keeping on.  This makes for a very human monster that is just as scary as the literal beast inside:

A woman dumps you, you go to a bar and get drunk. Someone cuts you up on the freeway, you shout ‘Asshole!’ and give him the finger. A werewolf appears, you scream like a six-year-old girl. These are the scripts. In any case he not only went maaah! in falsetto but flung both arms up in the region of his head. The remote flew from his hand and sailed across the room to clatter against a chair, leaving America’s Next Top Model to keep us company for the duration. Perhaps by profound survival instinct he held onto his cell phone. I reached out, relieved him of it, and while he watched crushed it in my own ample monster mitt, with spectacle elicited from him a strange nasal sound. His face crumpled or crimped as in preparation for grown-man toddler tears, but from the distension of his mouth and his filling lungs I knew another bigger scream was coming. I thought, We can’t have that.

Black humor drips from every page, and like all good black humor it’s both funny and profoundly not (i.e. unsettling and not cause for laughs).

Duncan populates the world with vampires and hunters of the supernatural whom Marlowe has to contend with at various points of the novel as they all want to get their hands on the last werewolf for their own reasons.  While I found myself wishing for some more world building, all of the elements as they are do a good job as various antagonists for Marlowe’s existential dilemma.

What The Last Werewolf Could Have Done Better

The wry, cynicism-laden voice is very melodic and it flows very well, especially with the great narration by Robin Sachs, but after a while it can become overtaxing.  You may need to listen to it in the right mood to keep from getting sucked into Marlowe’s ennui.

Readers might also take issue with the sex.  There’s a lot of it.  From reading descriptions of Duncan’s previous novels, sex is certainly one of his major concerns, especially in terms of what is defined as normal, what is deviant, and what and who defines the boundaries between the two.  Marlowe’s werewolf curse enforces a hyperactive libido on him in between transformations.  He has had almost two centuries of practice in trying to slake this constant desire.  He’s been around the block, you might say, and he takes us for a stroll with him in graphic detail.  It’s not totally gratouitous.  Sex for Marlowe is alienating most of the time, since not only is it an itch he constantly has to scratch but it’s tied into some deep psychological trauma leading back to his pre-wolf days.  So it does serve the character, but…phew.  I read one review on Audible that described the sex scenes as more visceral than the monster-horror scenes, and I’d have to agree.

The main show in the book is Marlowe’s existential crisis and how, through it all, a game changing discovery for him might be just around the corner, but part of that is dangled like a carrot in front of Marlowe and he eventually just decides “screw it, it doesn’t matter now anyhow,” which was disappointing.  Marlowe may not care to find out this big secret, but the reader might like to.

Concluding Thoughts

The Last Werewolf is a novel twist on the usual werewolf fare, and it balances neatly at times  between crude and refined.  Other times, the vulgarity, graphic scenes, and existential crises feels excessive and unnecessary.  I’m going to give it a positive review overall with the caveat that even if you are ok with all the sex, violence, and black humor it might still be an overtaxing read after a while.

 

Score: a tentative 4/5




Welcome to my Speculative Fiction Book Review Blog!

Books read and awaiting review:
Starfish by Peter Watts
Shadow of the Torturer (Book of the New Sun #1) by Gene Wolf
Monster Hunter Vendetta by Larry Correia
Spellbound (Grimnoir #2) by Larry Correia
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

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Speculative Rhetoric

where speculative fiction meets rhetorical theory

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