The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is the Right Stuff for Alternate History Fans

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It seems a lot of alternate history science fiction novels revolve around a major turning point in history. The most popular one is of Germany winning World War II as in Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and SS-GB. Harry Turtledove has an entire series based on the South winning the Civil War unofficially called The Southern Victory Series. Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate history in The Calculating Stars is not just one turning point, but several. The first is that Dewey would defeat Truman and become President of the United States, second that the US would be ahead of the Soviet Union in the space race.

Emma York is a former WASP, who flew with many perilous missions in WWII, and brilliant mathematician. She and her husband, Nathaniel, witness the meteorite impact and survive the subsequent shock wave. Since Nathaniel is literally a rocket scientist he is semi drafted into services to help at the local Air Force base.

This sets the timeline for the most drastic change in history. In 1952, a meteorite crashes into the Eastern coast of the United states and destroys much of the east coast, including Washington D.C. It sets up an environmental change that will eventually render the earth nearly uninhabitable. It is decided that the current space program be accelerated to colonize space, first the moon and eventually Mars.

In the hands of other writers, it may be natural to come up with grand ideas and scope of chronicling the race to space and tell a heroic struggle to not only survive the changing climate but to also do the impossible things such as reaching the moon. Mary Robinette Kowal chooses to make this a much more personal story. It is what makes this novel so unique and relatable.

This is all told through the point of view of Emma as she navigates through this invigorated space program and the issues of the era, mainly the sexism that stands in the way of not only her, but others women in participating in the space program beyond being number crunching computers.

After what was meant to be a PR appearance on the 50’s era show, Mister Wizard, Emma gets dubbed with the nickname of The Lady Astronaut. Thus would begin an unwanted focus on Emma and the role women will have in the fledgling space program. You would think it’s a no-brainer as do the women in the book. To colonize space, you are going to need women. But it is is still the mid-50s and not only is the idea of women’s lib not existent, but it is even predating the major civil rights movement. And Emma not only suffers from the upbringing of the time with the haunting refrain of  her mother’s “What will people think?” to her own issues of anxiety.

Emma feels she and many other friends, most of whom are former WASP themselves are fully qualified. It of course should come as no surprise that women will eventually get the chance to join the program. In fact there are few real surprises in the book, but the joy is the road trip to the final destination.

The characters come across as genuine and, yes, at times you may feel frustrated on behalf of Emma and a reluctance to assert herself as you know she can. But then you realize we are reflecting back on an long ago era of thought. And also that she definitely has anxiety problems.

Yet as an exercise in alternate history it also is an exercise in real history, of the WASPs that flew with honor and in sometimes dangerous conditions during World War II and the almost greenlit real female astronaut program of the era.

Unfortunately the end of the book, though not really ending in a cliffhanger left me wanting more. Fortunately there is a second half of the story called The Fated Sky, additionally there are several short stories and novellas that tie into the story of the Lady Astronaut series. The Lady Astronaut of Mars, though it was published first, is a Emma’s reflection on her past as an 80 year old who helped colonize Mars.

Not only is the book an excellent read, but it’s an excellent listen. The author also serves the narrator for the Audible.com exclusive production. It is not often that an author can pull off such an excellent job of voice performance (only Neil Gaiman seems to come to mind at the moment), but Mary Robinette Kowal is used to performing. She happens to also be a puppeteer.

I highly recommend The Calculating Stars.

The Wandering Earth is China’s First Great Science Fiction Epic

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I have watched Asian cinema all my life. And Asia, let alone China, is not at the top of my list as a source for science fiction films using hard science and incorporating state of the art special effects that would rival that of big budget Hollywood productions. As much as I love my Godzilla films, the effects have always been sub par and the science dubious at best.

The Wandering Earth is China’s big attempt at serious science fiction. That is something that not even Hollywood gets behind much as much of the science fiction we get these days fall on the more action-adventure and space opera vein. Every once in a while we may get an Arrival or The Martian, both of which were based on written works.

Cixin Liu’s novella of the same name serves as the source material for The Wandering Earth and he acts as an Executive Producer. Liu is China’s best-selling science fiction author and whose Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy (The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End) has achieved international acclaim including a Hugo award for The Three Body Problem. I find his writings to be very much like Arthur C. Clarke’s in vision and scope and it is apparent that classic Golden Age science fiction is an influence on his writing. The film, however, ends up flirting with the Roland Emmerlich territory of schmaltz and grandeur.

The film starts with title cards setting up that the sun is in its final stages of death and before dying off, will expand to engulf the inner planets. An ambitious plan is devised move the entire planet to the nearest star to survive. The journey will eventually take 2,500 years.

Liu Peiqiang (Wu Jing lending star power and producer creds) is an astronaut who is about to embark on a mission in space where he will serve on space station that serves as a navigator for the earth. He promises to return to his young son Liu Qi that he will return when his time is up in 17 years. It is up to Han Zi’ang, the boy’s grandfather to raise him now.

Flash forward 17 years and we see that half the earth is peppered with 10,000 plateau sized engines with massive mountain sized ones encircling the equator. The surviving population (It’s implied that many were left on the surface and died) live underground near the engines. Liu Qi, now an adult drags his adopted sister Han Duoduo to the surface for no real discernible reason, actually. Outside of taking some kind of joyride in one of the massive ATV vehicles that services the local engine with fuel to burn, there is no reasoning for him wanting to stay up on the surface. They get busted for using his grandfather’s pass and gramps has to bail him out. In lockup next to Liu Qi is a, without explanation why, bi-racial Tim (played basically for comic relief by Chinese American Mike Sui).

As earth approaches Jupiter to take advantage of its massive gravity to help sling it out of the solar system, the effect of the gas giant’s gravity causes massive quakes across the globe shutting off many engines. It’s amidst this that our earthbound protagonists find themselves involved in a cold icy road trip to an engine in Shanghai with a maguffin to ignite it.

Meanwhile, on the navigation ship, the AI has determined that Jupiter’s gravity spike will actually pull the earth in and kill everyone so it enacts emergency protocols that require the crew to go into hibernation. True to science fiction trope and probably due to the fact that the ship’s AI, MOSS, looks quite a bit like HAL from 2001, things are not what they seem on the ship.

The movie goes from one bad situation to another until the end where true to most Chinese big budget films of late, only by cooperation, teamwork, struggle, and sacrifice can the world be saved.

Frant Gwo is not known for directing science fiction or big budget films and though he does a good job of visuals it seems as if he is padding a story that could be told a lot simpler to stretch it out to a two-hour runtime. Along the way will be clichés of the absent farther and resentment for that and a bit of Chinese nationalism. You can see influence from disaster epics from Roland Emmerlich and Michael Bay. But you can also see problem solving as in Apollo 13 or The Martian. The visual effects and set pieces are stunning and it is hard to believe that such impressive visuals were achieved on the equivalent of a $50 million budget. The image of Jupiter and its giant storm eye looming over a frozen earth is a stunning sight.

The script is a bit more convoluted than it needs to be and since it is marketed for a Chinese New Year release, of course several references to the Lunar New Year are thrown in about coming home, family, and hope for a better future. Yes it is very cheesy at times, but no more than any other epic disaster movie.

I do recommend reading the source material as it is only a scat 45 pages. The movie differs greatly from it in many aspects and basically uses the premise and some scenes as the basic core of the story.

The Wandering Earth is presented mainly in Mandarin with smatterings of other international languages like Russian, French, even Malay. The English subtitles are well done for the most part except for just a couple of syntax errors. And to reach an even wider Chinese audience, Chinese subtitles are above the English ones for non-Mandarin speakers. It is on its way to becoming either the biggest or second biggest grossing Chinese film ever.

It is not a perfect film but it is epic in scope and quite an achievement visually and its core story is quite good even if some of the dialogue can come across as corny. It is worth seeing in the theater for the visuals alone. Recommended.

 

Review: The Hollywood Jim Crow

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Maryann Erigha has definitely done quite a bit of research for her book, The Hollywood Jim Crow. It’s an open secret that Hollywood has embedded in itself a racial belief and divide that with a few exceptions, Black directed and starred films are not bankable. Though primarily focused on Blacks in the film industry, the author tangentially applies this to Asian and Hispanic led films.

This idea is challenged with researched numbers dispelling this idea, though. Not only do Black helmed films do well, they proportionally outperform. The author primarily focuses on Hollywood’s treatment of Black directors and studio reluctance to dole out films of significant budgets to black directors. I do not dispute that there is significant racial bias in favor of white filmmakers, the numbers prove the author right. Of course there is a reason Peter Jackson directed all three Lord of the Rings movies, he was also the producer and writer. It was his project from the get go. That it ended up as big a budget and as huge a franchise as it ended up being was a gamble that paid off. Erigha used this as an example without the context of the background.

In bringing up Black Panther, the author points out that it took Marvel and Disney eighteen movies to hire a Black director for their films. Without a doubt, Black Panther was a financial success and it scored well critically as well. And let’s face some reality about Marvel movies, part of their success is their ability to fit as a whole narrative almost like a multi-part single movie. Directors are basically work for hire executing a big narrative. There is very little reason for this sort of racial disparity.

Those are blockbusters and The Hollywood Jim Crow points out as many successes as “bankable” stars or directors have had, their have been just as many flops. Yet Hollywood still hands out the big bucks and the projects. There was hesitation of having Denzel Washington star in The Equalizer, for instance. Now, Denzel Washington is probably one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, yet Hollywood still has this belief that a person of color can’t carry an action film, especially overseas. It did quite well. And for the first time in Washington’s long career, he signed on for a sequel.

As it is, studio execs, either purposefully or not, have little to no faith in films by Black filmmakers or starring Black actors in lead roles. And when those films come around, they are lower in budget and given less marketing than their equivalent movies of similar budget. Filmmakers like Tyler Perry have had more consistent profit in the box office despite lower market saturation. Is it because he appeals to a niche market and his films will only be as profitable as what his lower budgets are? We don’t know that for sure.

Although Erigha presents her facts well, at times, those facts are repeated a few pages later. Also, I did have some confusion on whether it was a good thing that Black directors were given projects with primarily White casts or not. Also the book does mention that many Black directors are pigeon-holed into making Black-urban films – characters struggling to get out of their “ghetto” life.  To me, those are fine films but it’s the same as asking a Chinese actor if they can perform martial arts for their character. One anecdote from a director says “I make movies about human.” And the human experience as far as cinema is concerned encompasses every experience of our lives. A recent example from this year of a human story, but also a Black story is the excellent If Beale Street Could Talk.

The book is definitely an academic work. The dead giveaway is that it is published by NYU Press. The Subject matter is compelling and certainly relatable, but at times it does come across as dry. It relies on published anecdotes, and figures but  does not seem to reach out to some of the personalities that the author talks about. It would have been nice to hear from Spike Lee or Chris Rock directly for the book rather than rely on previous interviews. It may have provided more current perspectives, if only a few comments.

Not mentioned in the book as much is also the way Asian actors and directors have been treated in Hollywood. As big a star as Jackie Chan is, he’s never had his own starring vehicle and been paired with a partner for market purposes. It is only recently in the rather serious film from him The Foreigner that he was the main lead, albeit, Pierce Brosnan was the villain. Asian directors, such as Justin Lin, and James Wan have had better success, though. That success in getting the big budget films comes from someone at one time giving them that big budget seat at the table. Not everyone gets that chance.

In the end, much of the author’s arguments are a call to action for better representation not only in the director’s char but in the studio boardroom as well. It is about the money, but that buttresses against old Hollywood beliefs about marketability and bankability. There is quite a lot to digest in such a short book, but it is well worth a read and a read on hand reference for those who don’t buy into the myth that people of color don’ make money in the box office.

I received The Hollywood Jim Crow as an advanced galley through edelweiss.com but it does not effect the positives I feel for this book. It is educational and well-informed. It could have even been wider in scope. But the author made a conscious choice to focus primarily on Black filmmakers and I don’t fault that choice. It is well worth a read.

It is my hope that studio execs give this a read or at least get an intern to read and summarize for them, because it holds a mirror to Hollywood’s shortcomings when it comes to representation behind the camera and within the industry. I seriously doubt it though. But as demographics change, Hollywood will have to as well if they want to stay profitable.

Review: Night of Camp David by Fletcher Knebel

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For some reason I still remember a tattered paperback of Night of Camp David by Fletcher Knebel in my huge collection of books only for the tagline “What if the President of the USA went stark-raving mad?” Never read it. Probably donated it to a charity like Friends of the Library. At the time, going by the back cover. I thought it was a thinly veiled allusion to Richard Nixon. I did not know at the time the book originally came out in 1965.

Fast forward to 2018, where we currently have a president that some have described as unhinged or incompetent. Let’s be clear, Night of Camp David is not some Nostradamus like prediction of the Trump presidency any more than I thought it was a reference to the Nixon presidency. Long out of print, interest had recently brought the book back into publication. I even received a NetGalley copy even though I had pre-ordered a paperback already.

The book itself is fairly simplistic, maybe even a little longer than it needs to be. A young junior senator from Iowa gets called to Camp David one night at the behest of the President. While there, in a darkened office the President rails about the Vice President whose own scandal the President takes as a personal attack against him. He want’s the young senator, Jim McVeigh to be his new running mate for re-election instead of the current VP.  He them goes on to promote the idea of nationwide wiretaps of citizens. Bells start going off in McVeigh’s head. But the offer of a vice presidency silences those bells.

But another encounter with the President as well as accounts from other people who have talked to him raises alarming red flags to him where he is convinced the President nuts.

What happens over the next few hundred pages is a lot of hemming and hawing between McVeagh’s own doubts and trying to keep things secret until he is absolutely sure. Even the few people he confides in aren’t convinced. In fact, they think he is the one that is losing his mind.

As far as political thrillers, this is definitely political, but barely has any thrills. Senator Jim MacVeagh is not the brightest bulb in the bunch and he is definitely morally flawed with his extramarital affair. At times the dialog is very dated and sometimes sound like an episode of Mad Men.

The situations themselves does come across as very plausible in how other political figures would react and initially refuse to believe that the president has become an unhinged paranoid with delusions of grandeur. The book was published in 1965, and the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967. But Fletcher Knebel was also a political newspaper columnist so we can assume he drew on his background for the material. And at time it reads almost like a satire. Perhaps it is and we were never told.

The novel comes to a tidy end. Perhaps it comes at that end a little too conveniently. Nevertheless it is a short read worth taking with you on a plane or to the beach.

 

 

Review: The Deadbringer by E.M. Markoff

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One of my annoying traits is always having difficulty in starting a book set in a world that is unique and original. This happens more with fantasy book than science fiction. Back in my younger days, it was easy enough reading books set in Tolkien clones like Forgotten Realms or Shannara. Once I was familiar with a new world like Valdemar, for example, I would easily transition from one book to the next in the series. So for me it takes a while, sometimes with false starts but when I do manage to stick with it I can become totally absorbed in that worl. Such is the case with the new Ellderet series by E.M. Markoff.

E.M. Markoff’s The Deadbringer introduces a world that is highly original in imagination, rich in lore and scope, yet is contained in a relatively short novel of about 300 pages. Fair warning about this world, though, if you are expecting long passages of info dumps about history, lore, or the different races of this world you are in for a disappointment. It is dealt out in pieces naturally as the narrative warrants it. For the most part it allows a natural flow of dialogue. But at times a reader may be lost at the mention of a race of beings we don’t really get introduced to until later in the book. Nevertheless, this first book in a series lays out a lot of world-building and lore.

Kira is a Deadbringer, a race who can not only talk to the spirits of the dead but can raise them as well. His people were hunted to near extinction in the Purging. While working as an apprentice mortician for his uncle, his heritage is exposed and son after, he and his uncle must flee Sanctifiers, elite warriors who serve the Ascendency, the ruling power of the land.

From here the book focuses a lot on world-building and on the traveling adventures of the pursued and the pursuers. Layers of background of the world and characters are revealed along the way. Kira’s adventures will have him confront what his heritage truly is as he lost both his parents and his uncle is not a Deathbringer either. His uncle, Eutau, who has raised Kira since he was a baby holds dark secrets that are key his Kira’s past. The four Sanctifiers who pursue them have their own individual history to them. With this being the first book in a series, these personal histories are yet introductions, a sort of tease into bigger narratives yet to come.

The world that E.M. Markoff creates is very diverse and populated with distinct races such as the Ro’Erden a race, distinguished by their gray skin, taloned fingers, and horns, that once invaded the land and were defeated  by the Deadbringers. The Katarus are a warrior race some of whom can forge weapons from their blood. Now how cool is that?

The only real negatives I have is that as the book really gets going with many pieces and characters coming together we have to wait for the next book. This book will that draw you in and leaves you clamoring for more. There is definitely much more to explore in this world and I can’ wait to dive back in with the next book which is due in 2019.

There is a prequel novella, To Nurture & Kill,  that is supposed to serve as a prequel. but until then, keep your eyes and feeds open for E.M. Markoff’s second novel The Faceless God.

Note, though it is currently at a nice price on Amazon Kindle, the print edition is beautifully done with interior artwork not in the ebook.

Further Reference

Author’s Website

The World of Ellderet

Review: Zeroes by Chuck Wendig

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It is actually quite rare to watch a movie or television show get the portrayal of hackers right. They are often shown typing away in seeming random on a DOS screen and instantly creating worms and viruses with just a few simple keystrokes. Or they are breaking into international banks and government systems with ease. I suppose if they showed that it was actually a tedious task it would not look good on screen .

Chuck Wendig’s Zeroes seems to strike a good middle ground. It approaches hacking more realistically and not just the breaking onto security systems, but stealing credit cards, trolling, and just plain old research.

Zeroes (or Zer0es) is a deceptive novel. It starts off rather innocuous enough. We are introduced chapter by chapter to a cast of misfit hackers, and internet trolls. The opening of the book rounds up our cast of five characters as government forces arrest them one by one.  They are each offered a deal, work for the government or go up the river. To some of them, it would also mean hurting loved ones or putting them in danger as one has been helping with the Arab Spring.

What follows would normally play out as a dirty dozen scenario. Do the job, stay out of jail. We get the interaction and banter between a group of individuals that really have no reason to like each other. There is a rivalry with another cell of hackers (really only one guy) at the same compound that they are held, called the Hunting Lodge. It ends up uniting them, actually.

A good percentage of the book, almost half of it, involves “pen tests,” penetration tests into targets just to see how deep they can go. Their progress is monitored and logged and supposedly they are graded at how well they do at their probes. It will turn out that they were doing more hrm than they thuoght they were doing. I am remonded of Ender’s Game where the simulations were not simulations.

Yet they are still basically in a prison and one that is not covered by any sort of penal regulations. So, of course, we have a motley crew of sadistic guards who are bored watching a bunch of loser nerds typing at computers and just want an excuse to toss someone into sensory deprivation tank for a day.

Halfway through the book, things hit the fan. It begins to occur that theses tests are not merely tests and bad things are beginning to happen around the world. At the core of it is an enigma that keeps popping up. Typhon. Who or what exactly is it? And just like that, what started off as a sort of techno-thriller, becomes a science fiction adventure with elements of  horror to it.

There is enough action sequences for a Hollywood blockbuster and times it feels like this was written originally as a movie or even a big budget HBO or Netflix mini-series.

Wendig writes his does not introduce any particularly new science to the genre, and whatever complicated concepts there are, he explains everything without talking down to the audience or making info dumps.

But what really moves the book is its cast of characters. Each one of them has a personal history and a personality that comes though in the novel and we do root for our main cast even the Reagan, the internet troll. Wendig has a lot of experience with internet trolls if you follow him on Twitter, an he surprisingly, does not fully demonize her.

In the end, these five not particularly talented misfits have to combine their moderate skills to save the world. Really, they have to save the world.

The book does tease at sequel at the end that has yet to appear. Invasive which takes place in the same world is not a direct sequel. But what we get is a fun ride with a fun and motley cast of characters.

Recommended

Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

The dreams of Gods were too huge, too beautiful, simply too much. They were everything that lived and everything that died: a great, weaving circle, the cycles of creation and destruction that molded all things. They were a knife to the hand and a field of metal and blood. They were glass and flame, earth and water, the way birth feels and a blinding tightness akin to dying. They were creation. Creation, in its headiest, purest form. She wasn’t made for this. She was small, far too small to survive.

I am beginning to think that we are at a new golden age of fantasy literature. I grew up on a steady diet of Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, and too many Forgotten Realms novels than were healthy for me. Between Tolkien, the D&D world of Forgotten Realms and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of time, the worlds were imaginative yet had a lot of similarities to each other. These were tropes I grew up on and always went back to because they were familiar territory and easy enough to jump into. They were also influenced by many of the same Euro-Nordic and Celtic myths. As much as I love those, it is incredibly refreshing when something new comes along or in some cases something that is from a perspective based a different on history and myth

Tasha Suri’s debut novel Empire of Sand is a book influenced by the Murghal Empire without being a book about the Mughal Empire. It stands in its own universe of myth and lore. The world that she creates is very well realized, both epic in it’s scope yet is a personal journey. It’s use of magic is believable in not only that world but seems like it would have worked in ours a long time ago. The magic rituals seem to be based on Indian classical dances, mainly the Bharatanatyam.

Mehr is the privileged daughter of the Governor of Jah Irinah who serves under the auspices of not only the Emperor, but of the godlike Maha who is the real power behind the Ambhan Empire. His mystics pray for the fortunes and prosperity of the empire and or misfortunes of their enemies. Yet as privileged and sheltered as she is, she is an outcast in her own palace. her heritage is only half Ambhan as her mother was of a race considered barbarous, the Amrithi. Her mother, rather than let vows bind her to her father, she left to join her people out in the desert not to be seen again. Though Mehr is an outcast, her younger sister Arwa has been taken under the wing of Maryam, their step-mother. Yes, there is a (sort of) wicked step-mother. What mainly alienates her from everyone is that Maha still chooses to follow the ancient rites of her people such as ritual dances and the belief in daivas, djinn like creatures descendant from the gods.

It is not only beliefs but the power that manifests when she performs the ancient dances that draw the attention of the Maha’s mystics. They come to her father with an arranged marriage proposal. By tradition she has the right to turn down the proposal and her father advises so. but it is not a good idea to turn down the mystics, so to save not only her family’s honor but heir lives, she chooses to marry a servant of the Maha.

What will follow is the revelation of the truth behind the Maha’s power and his monstrous personality.  Mehr’s journey becomes our journey as it is her point of view we follow except for a couple of brief chapters. Her journey is a personal one where she discovers the strength of the powers hidden within her rituals and power of vows that are truly binding. With all that going on, the foundation of the story and her motivations is a love story between her and Amun, the Amrithi man whose vows to the Maha and his mystics practically make him their slave.

Ms. Suri’s world building hints at a deeper and richer history than we are presented with. And that is a good thing. The illusionist’s best trick is leaving the audience wanting more. Since this is the beginning of a series (but the book can stand on its own) we can expect more of the mysteries of this world to open up on us. What we do get revealed to us is a world where the dreams and nightmares of sleeping gods can shape the very fate of an empire.

I cared a lot for Mehr’s struggles whether they be mundane ones or life threatening ones and found her to be a strong heroine who has to grow stronger as the world crumbles around her. There are moments of violence and physical abuse in the book that may be unsettling to some but it is never exploitative.

 This is a highly readable book with relatable characters and I can’t wait to get to the next installment.

Current editions of Empire of Sand contain an interview with the author and a preview of the folow-up book Realm of Ash. I originally received an advanced copy through NetGalley but went ahead and purchased the book to suppor the author.

 

Book Review: Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan

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I guess cyberpunk never went away. It may have peaked out a bit in the 80s as a science fiction sub-genre but it did not really go away. Hollywood movies and Japanese anime embraced the visual stylings of its noirish futures and kept it alive. I’m no expert on the genre by any means, but I’m old enough to remember the big wave. Roots of the genre could be found in the writings of Philip K. Dick and John Brunner. When William Gibson’s Neuromancer came it seemed to open up a floodgate for writers like Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, and Pat Cadigan. Even veteran writer Norman Spinrad dipped his toes into the genre with Little Heroes. Movies like Blade Runner, the original animated Ghost in the Shell, and of course, Akira would be media influences for decades to come.

Netflix recently adapted the first of Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels Altered Carbon. It was a critical success. With its heavy dose of cyberpunk themes, I would argue that if the live action adaptation Ghost in the Shell looked like Altered Carbon then it would have been a much better movie than the generic action film Hollywood cranked out. That was my first exposure to the name of Richard K. Morgan.

Thin Air, the latest book by Morgan, is my first exposure to his writing. Though it is not set in the same universe as the Takeshi Kovacs books, the noirish tones and styling are still present. And it just makes me think that Netflix did a hell of a job visualizing his world. It is supposed to be a standalone book in the universe of Thirteen, first published in 2007. However I could not help but feel a little lost for much of the book especially in the beginning as I am dropped into a decadence soaked Martian city.

Haken Veil is a hard-boiled muscle for hire. After getting arrested on suspicion of killing  some lowlife, he somehow gets drafted into babysitting a Madison Medekwe, a corporate auditor from Earth. The purpose of her particular audit is to find out what happened to a blue-collar worker who disappeared after winning a lottery that would have paid his way back to Earth. True to tropes, things do hit the fan.

The rest of the book involves Veil snarling, swearing, punching, killing, and screwing his way  through the underbelly of the Martian city of Bradbury to figure out the truth. Mix in an overdose of seedy criminals, corrupt officials, prostitutes, and hackers and you get cyberpunk version of a long island ice-tea — a mix of everything on the shelf. Ultimately that mix leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Thin Air is full of atmosphere and has a strong attempt at world building. But Other than a few side mentions about the gravity and being in domes, the book could really have taken place in any metropolis setting. Sure there are healthy doses of Martian politics but frankly it’s the standard Mars independence from Earth that has become a main trope. The city of Bradbury is full of tough talking f-bomb dropping characters with very little to like about them. The protagonist is not only unlikable but unrelatable. Even after flashbacks, we know little of him and thus have little investment in what happens to his character other than to see the novel to the end. An it does come to an explosive end at that.

Whatever failings that Thin Air has, Morgan does good job of making up for it in nice action set pieces that can be bloody and explosive. As graphic as the action is, the sex is even more so. The first time was jarring but by the third or fourth sex scene it does get ridicules in its graphic depiction of bumping uglies.

The plot does relatively tie up neatly in the end with conspiracies uncovered and mysteries solved. One character twist was pretty easy to spot from the start though. Maybe that was not an important twist as it really did not come as a surprise, only the timing of the reveal.

The world that Morgan created is quite an intriguing one and by the end I had hopes that there was more to the lore than vague references to other events o places like Ganymede. In the end the book was entertaining enough overall but a bit long.

Review copy courtesy of NetGalley

Book Review: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

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For me, Lovecraft Country demonstrates the real power of versity in art. By focusing on people who were traditionally excluded from genre fiction, I’m able to do interesting new things with some very old tropes, while simultaneously exploring aspects of our shared history that aren’t as well-known as they should be. Combining fantasy with realism produces a richer story than would be possible with either alone. And despite being set sixty years in the past, this is easily one of the most topical books I’ve written—though that says less about my skills as an author than it does about the state of the country that I live in.

— Matt Ruff

Note: Though fantasy fiction, this book reviewed is based on real and painful times in American history, particularly the Jim Crow America of segregation and racism against Black Americans was not only the norm, but the institution.

Is it possible to separate the person from their art? Does knowing that the person whose work you enjoy, even admire, is a horrible person change your view of that work? I still have books signed by authors I don’t agree with like Orson Scott Card, but in storage. I still have the Mists of Avalon by child molester and abuser, Marion Zimmer Bradley on my shelf. The creator of the Rurouni Kenshin manga and anime, Nobuhiro Watsuki, was recently convicted of possession of child pornography. I can’t look at these works again without thinking of the wrongs committed by their creators.

I never got into H.P. Lovecraft. I’ve tried to but just never could finish the supposed classic “At the Mountains of Madness.” But Lovecraft was such an integral figure in imaginative fiction that little did I know I was reading works that were definitely influenced by him. From Stephen King and Brian Lumley to the films of John Carpenter, I’ve grown up with Lovecraft lore. Little did I know that this literary giant of imagination, this icon of genre fiction was a racist. I’m not talking about the casual racism of “he was a person of the times” that so many other artists were back then. He was an outright white supremacist.

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is not only a book inspired by Lovecraft but one about the racial attitude that Lovecraft shared with so much of America. Through its ensemble cast of African-American characters they will navigate through secret societies, sorcery, other worlds, ghosts, time travel, and Jim Crow America.

From the publisher’s description:

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

The book takes its time to get to any incidents of supernatural horrors that are promised. Instead of a straightforward novel we get stories of novella or novelette length that are interconnected with each other culminating in a confrontational conclusion. In the first and titular segment, Atticus, his uncle George (publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a fictional counterpart to the real world Negro Motorist Green Book) and childhood friend Letitia encounter horrors of America’s racism. From a simple stop at a gas station to just sitting at what is thought to be a safe diner, the experience of being Black in 1954 America can range from demeaning to life threatening. They are searching for Atticus’ missing and estranged father who is in Ardham, Massachusetts. Atticus originally misreads his father’s handwriting as Arkham, hence the origin of the title Lovecraft Country.

This will lead to the introduction of the main antagonist of the book, Caleb Braithwhite, who will directly and indirectly effect the characters for the rest of the book until a final confrontation that is satisfying yet leaves room for a sequel. Perhaps we will get that sequel in the form of another book. But since it is also a forthcoming HBO series produced by Jordan Peele, we may get it from the show.

What Matt Ruff accomplishes here can’t be called a delightful read. In fact much of it is incredibly uncomfortable. Not because of any eldritch horror, but from the historical context of America’s great sin of racism. There is a segment where Montrose Turner, Atticus’ father recounts his boyhood memories of the real life Tulsa Riot of 1921. The memory, as recounted, and as written by Ruff, stabs you in the heart.

Yet, in spite of the real world horrors, there is a strength in the characters that not only allows them to endure but to inspire. There is Hippolyta, George’s wife, who dreamed of being the first Black female astronomer ever since she was a child and continues her love of the stars. She will feature in her own adventure while doing research for the Safe Negro Travel Guide. Her twelve-year-old son, Horace, wants to become a comic book publisher. Letitia Dandridge purposely becomes the first homeowner in a White neighborhood, so that it may open the doors for more Black home ownership in the area. Each character, in their own way, wants to carve a place for themselves in a system that is designed to keep them down.

A sub-theme of the book and it’s characters is that several of them are also geeks. Atticus, George, Horace, and too a less extent, Letitia are readers of the popular science fiction of the era, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, and of course H.P. Lovecraft. And though Burroughs is problematic, Lovecraft as we now know, was outright bigoted. And perhaps this passage can help me reconcile with my own modern experiences with someone like Marion Zimmer Bradley:

“But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though. ”

“But you don’t get mad. Not like Pop does.”

“No, that’s true, I don’t get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes.” He looked at the shelves. “Sometimes, they stab me in the heart.”

Atticus gets that stab in the heart, when as a young man, his father shows him a copy of a Lovecraft poem called “On the Creation of Ni***rs.” Except Lovecraft did not use Asterisks. Ruff credits Pam Noles’ article, “Shame,” as an influence. It is about the difficulties of being a Black science-fiction fan in America.

The audiobook is narrated by Kevin Kenerly, whose dramatic performance adds weight and nuance to characters who sometimes undergo some emotional toils. He is a stage actor who is also no stranger to audiobooks.

Among the accolades that Lovecraft Country has received, one of them was a nomination for the 2016 World Fantasy Award. Ironically up until 2015, the World Fantasy Award statue was a likeness of H.P. Lovecraft. It was finally changed after 40 years from pressure to do so.

Some readers may not like the way the book is divided into novellas that are interconnected. Personally I really appreciated it and perhaps he only weak segment would have to be the Horace centered story. But overall, Matt Ruff not only brings to life the hard world of the characters but he manages to infuse them with an authenticity as well. These aren’t great heroes out to save or change the world. They are Black Americans making it through a shameful period of America’s past that is not really all that distant and not one that we have distanced ourselves away from enough yet.

Highly Recommended

Further Reading

A Reader’s Guide to Lovecraft Country
Prince Hall Freemasonry
Cory Doctorow on Lovecraft Country
When Jim Crow Drank Coke
Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
Shame by Pam Noles

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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It’s as hard to have a favorite sequence of myths as it is to have a favorite style of cooking (some nights you might want Thai food, some nights sushi, other nights you crave the plain home cooking you grew up on). But if I had to declare a favorite, it would probably be for the Norse myths.

There is little dispute that Neil Gaiman is an exceptional writer with a unique imagination. His American Gods is one of the finest novels of contemporary fantasy today. It draws on myths from around the world and particularly Norse mythology in its portrayal of Odin. It now comes full circle with Mr. Gaiman going back to the source material for his book, Norse Mythology.

Drawing from the Poetic and Prose Eddas, Neil Gaiman presents a retelling of the ancient Scandinavian myths of names we know, Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya. So much of what we have now in modern culture these days retold in cinematic form. Marvel movies are pretty far removed from the source. Nothing wrong with that as the nature of myths evolve. And I must admit that while reading Norse Mythology, I kept hearing the voices of Chris Helmsworth as Thor, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and Anthony Hopkins as Odin.

It is by coincidence that this is the second book based on classical mythology I’ve read this year this year. Madeline Miller’s Circe a narrative novel told in first person full of passions and covering how one character has witnessed the great age of Greek myths. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a series of tales beginning with an introduction to the gods and creation to the twilight of the god, Ragnarok. Nevertheless,I can’t help but contrast the two in that both of these books are excellent ways to introduce students to ancient myths. Gaiman’s book, I believe is suitable for young audiences though. Ms. Miller’s book has a few more mature subjects in them.

Even though the book is suitable for minors, don’t let that fool you. It is an engrossing set of stories and told in a comfortable manner that grabs a hold of you by the hand and leads you to a storyteller’s campfire. Gaiman cut his teeth in comic books, and I can see these tales as pieces of sequential art in my mind rather than a movie. Well, except when Thor and Loki are bantering with each other. I see a Marvel movie.

Speaking of Thor and Loki, they come across as somewhat different from their cinematic counterparts. Thor while still strong and powerful also comes across as rather dim. Loki is still brilliant and charming but does not come across as pure evil. He also tends to drink too much and likes to prank the gods. Out of all the character’s he comes across is certainly the most complicated.

The book runs just under three-hundred pages and goes by quickly. It includes a cast of players, a glossary, and notes on each story. It is as if he did write this as a school book. So If you forget something you can reference it easily in the book. The writer’s notes are in the end and are short takes on the sources materials for each story told within the book. I would have preferred that Gaiman added these notes at the beginning of each story though.

One of my favorite tales is “The Treasures of the Gods,” where, through a series of tricks that started as a bad prank against Thor’s wife, the gods of Asgard acquired several great treasures, including Thor’s hammer Mjölnir. It is highly amusing and is the first of the more detailed stories once past the introduction of the main characters.

It all ends in Ragnarok, though. And even though it signals the end of the gods, it comes across as a rather beautiful sequence in the cycle of life. Certainly Neil Gaiman has a gift of prose, and since he also does the audio version, he has a gift for narration as well. Ragnarok certainly comes across as the most beautiful doomsday I’ve ever read.

As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from.

In the end, this is a very accessible book of stories tied together about gods and their often petty interactions. It’s a comfortable, dramatic, often amusing read. If you’ve not read any Neil Gaiman before then this is a good introduction to him. If you are a veteran Neil Gaiman fan, then this is a nice little entry into his bibliography. Either way, I don’t think you will regret picking this up.