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Slow Bullets
Slow Bullets
by Alastair Reynolds
Edition: Paperback

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A cause greater than revenge, love, or recollection, 13 July 2015
This review is from: Slow Bullets (Paperback)
I’ve been a big fan of Alastair Reynolds even since 2007 when I spent twenty days reading through the entire Revelation Space trilogy: Revelation Space (2000), Redemption Ark (2002), and Absolution Gap (2003). Since then, I’ve read nearly everything the man has written, minus the Dr. Who novel and the sequels to Blue Remembered Earth (2012), which is also the last novel of his I’ve read. I was certainly eager to return to the mind of Reynolds, ripe with noir space horror.

Though much of Reynolds’ work is rather lengthy, Slow Bullets is a slim volume on par with a novella (a little less than 40,000 words). Its compact size doesn’t leave out any of the expectations associated with Reynolds’ work—a combination a distant future humanity, a large-scale war, the gritty reality of the grassroots, and greater mysteries of Man.

Typically, when I read a book’s synopsis that contains the words “vast conflict” or “conscripted soldier”, I immediately place the book back on the shelf; I’m not at all into novels glorifying soldiers or war (though some novels redeem themselves in one way or another). Thankfully, Slow Bullets doesn’t focus on the command structure of the military or the tactics of the battlefield; rather, the focal point of the story is on one solider, a woman named Scur, and her self-imposed parallel responsibilities of revenge upon her torturer and keeping peace and order.

A vast conflict, as stated above, between the Central Worlds and the Peripheral Systems had been drawn out yet comes to a near-end with the recently agreed upon ceasefire. News of the ceasefire, like their trans-dimensional skipships, takes time to cross space, which is unfortunate for Scur because she has just crossed paths with the notorious Orvin. His reputation is so bad, in fact, that both sides of the war would like to see him one. For scur, physical pain from her torturer is only the beginning of a pain that will stretch into her future and Man’s future.

All soldiers have slow bullets buried within them, a capsule safely embedded in their chests that hold data about their respective history, career, and family. These slow bullets burrow through skin, painfully, only to stop once it reaches its destination in the chest. It’s a necessary pain with anesthesia, but what Orvin has in store for Scur is an unnecessary evil: an un-anesthetized slow bullet shot burrowing, grinding, shredding through her thigh on its way to penetrate her heart. Her torture begun, the pain reels through her but her captors’ intentions are cut short when they flee from an oncoming raid, leaving her with the excruciating pain and certain death. Her one recourse: cut through her own flesh to dig out the slow bullet.

And so, the novella is off to a start like the draw of a whip; the snap of which comes when Scur awakens from hibo sleep in her capsule with no memory of having come aboard any ship. Much like on the battlefield, Scur adapts to the unfamiliar situation by assuming her role as scout, voracious for information. Her first opportunity comes in the shape of Prad, a man being chased through the corridors of the same ship. She comes to learn that she is a prisoner, a war criminal, on route to Tottori for a tribunal on her crimes, of which she is aware.

Prad is one of the members of staff on the prisoner ship Caprice, a massive ship converted from a luxury liner touring the stars. He savvy with the technology of the ship, all of which seem to be on the fritz. Together, they witness through the ship’s camera other prisoners waking up and fighting among themselves. Seeing the violence as senseless, Prad assists Scur in announcing that everyone should segregate themselves by their affiliation, one torus for each affiliation: Central Worlds’ soldier, Peripheral Systems’ soldiers, and civilians. She also organizes a council with representatives from each, thereby forming a Trinity with Scur as the temporary dictator; her first order of business: find and kill Orvin, the man who left her in pain and for dead.

Within Caprice, tempers are dampened by a shared dilemma: Why hasn’t anyone rescued them yet? Outside Caprice, a planet that resembles Tottori seems aged, rugged, and colder than it should be… and where are the industrial sectors of the great planet? Without the ubiquitous NavNet to suggest their location, without any timing device to suggest how much time has passed, without a shred of datum as to what has happened, the unwilling residents-cum-prisoners hold on to the threads of their tripartite union by their joint endeavors alone. While they look for Orvin, they also search for an additional passenger, an interloper from a docked spacecraft—merely a cramped, one-person capsule.

This plot builds steadily with Reynolds taking great care in applying his skill at pacing; variables in the story surmount while one truth after another are unknotted from the tangle… the when, where, and the why stagger the minds of Scur, the Trinity, and the captives—of time and space—within the Caprice. Once their joint projects conclude, tensions once again arise with the memory that differences ought to split and the differences ought to remain. Tentatively peaceful, the Trinity mulls solutions; Scur mulls over possible recourse for her own prisoner; and the Caprice mulls over its continual and progressive loss of data.

However, not all the dealt cards that lay facedown are reveled toward the end. Though only 190 pages, a great amount of detail is infused in Reynolds’ world-building. It isn’t unnecessarily over-detailed, nor are crucial factors in the frisson glazed over. One point of difference between the Central Worlds and Peripheral Systems is their belief in The Book, a semi-religious or cultural text that differs between the two sides; each has their own Book, each has their own allegiance. Atop this split in culture that divides the people aboard the Caprice, Scur straddles her own two-sided gulf between who she is and who she should be; this gorge of responsibility and identity deepens as she learns more of their shared plight.

Eventually, the “slow bullets” come back into play. Scur’s own military slow bullet holds pictures of her mother and father, so it symbolizes her connection with her past. Everyone else also has this connection to their own past. The ship’s data tablets can read information on the bullets and write information onto them. Scur’s greatest triumph is deciding her personal history and Man’s future, but this may not be a shared decision, nor may it placate the friction developing between the two sides, but Scur herself sees a selfless solution. As the narrator, she ends the novel with saying (190):

"I called myself Scur. I was a soldier in the war.
I set my hand to these words."

These parting words and the final section of the novella offer a glimpse into her actions, her memories, and her motivations throughout the story. The conclusion isn’t a jolting twist, but it is a turn of finesse.


Administrator
Administrator
by Taku Mayumura
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.50

5.0 out of 5 stars The humanistic and bureaucratic schism between policy and policing, 14 April 2015
This review is from: Administrator (Paperback)
Administrator (novel) by Taku Mayumura
Original: Japanese, 1974
Translated by Daniel Jackson, 2004

Of Mayumura's work since 1961, only three titles are available in English, a situation which gives the reader little to work with when understanding the man behind the pages. Access to this small scope of work is difficult, but Kurodahan has made it much, much more accessible (and for which I thank them for providing me with a copy). Mayumura's work includes: a) "I'll Get Rid of Your Discontent" (1962/2007), a short story about coping with daily grievances or opting for the easy solution; b) "Fnifmum" (1989), a short story about a time-spanning alien entity who unexpectedly empathizes with two organic life-forms; and c) this collection, Administrator, of four novelettes/novellas that pinpoints a pivot of personal uncertainty when confronted between policy and application.

The rear cover of Administrator says that Mayumura was inspired (uninspired?) by his experience as a salaryman, which he used to create stories of "bureaucracy and depersonalization". It seems that Japanese speculative fiction specializes in just this field, as there are man notable examples: Ryo Hanmura's "Cardboard Box" (1974/1989), Kobo Abe's "The Flood" (1989), and much of Yasutaka Tsutsui's work, including "The Very Edge of Happiness" (1973/2006) and "Commuter Army" (1973/2006).

Where Administrator differs from these other works is its focus on the politics and policy of administration rather than on the toilsome drudgery of the underlings. Other stories mostly focus on the hardships of being a salaryman outside of work--in society, at home, on their own; Administrator focuses on the immediate frisson of the salaryman on location.

Largely, an Administrator is an independent entity on an assigned planet where they must direct Federation policy into the policing of the same planet (the words police and policy have a common root word in Greek: polis, which means "city" or "citizenship). Like textbook theory and real-world application, the Federation's policy isn't very applicable in the field. Each Administrator is thoroughly trained and is among the elite of the elite in terms of intelligence and education, but actual application of knowledge and degree of flexibility is unknown until that same Administrator is in the field.

In practice, however, an Administrator of a planet for the Federation is just a glorified care-taker, the equivalent of a human rubber stamp. Regardless of being the elite of the elite, their position is simply one of routine while planet-wide robots carry out the real tasks of management, of which SQ1 is at the helm as it commands the robots on a variety of tasks: surveillance, translation, surveying, censusing, and protecting the Administrator. Only when a face is needed to represent the Federation and its policy does the Administrator physically visit the natives of the colonists.

This administrative sense of redundancy evolves through the stories until the conclusion in "Bound Janus". Progressively, as the administrative system evolves, the Administrators begin to sink into the feeling that all their granted power is mere illusion, that the strength they are bestowed is functionless, toothless, impotent--if only policy is to be mandated from the Federation to the natives and colonists, what is humanistic function of the Administrator? What cannot already be done by SQ1 and its host of submissive robots?

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"The Flame and the Blossom" (Hon' to Hanabira, 1973) - 4/5

Kurobu's predecessor, Kalgeist, was a bitter man bent on militant life and black-or-white truths. But now that Kurobu is the Administrator of Sarulunin, his orders from the Federation are to keep the planet of flora as natural as possible. In the Amilla section of of the planet, the intelligent natives have asked for his help in regard to recent attacks. The opposing tribe, a motile flower with a gift for intelligence, makes Kurobu see his planet, his life, differently. 39 pages

Even with all the training to become clinically detached in his work, Kurobu experiences a sensation of extra-human dimension that rattles his perspective on his term as Administrator; the experience has left him with an awareness of his humanism and has planted the seed of discontent.

---

"A Distant Noon" (Haruka naru Mahiru, 1971) - 4/5

Nenegn is a planet covered in swamps, in which the reclusive natives dwell. The Administrator, Oki, takes a benevolent stance toward the low-intelligence natives while keeping the so-called colonists at arm's length because of their disrespect for the Nenegians and the exaggerated respect for his position. Oki is invited to the depths of a prosperous Nenegian fort where Gugenge shows him the amount of reform being done. Oki grants them the use of a laser, but the colonists learn of this. 39 pages

Oki is impressed with the performance of the natives so much that he allows them one benefit, but only for their own use--the natives are happy. The pseudo-colonists learn of his actions and, while being unhappy with the Administrator, follow in his footsteps by supplying other natives with the same tool. A hammer, saw, or drill can be a tool-cum-weapon, much like the Administrators actions--follow policy as the tool of a job, watch others use that same policy, pervert it, and bring about the Administrator's demise.

---

"The Wind in the Ruins" (Iseki no Kaze, 1973) - 4/5

The heavily perfumed winds of the planet Tayuneine make everyone content in the heady nostalgia that the scents give them. The human colonists and Kazeta, the Administrator, all know that it's not a perfect world--it seems green apparitions occasionally appear, possibly the ghosts of the long dead natives. Unfortunate for Kazeta, the increased spectral activity causes the colonists' outcry at the same time as a brusque Administrator cadet comes to train... all prior to a visit from the Federation's Inspector. 42 pages

Though head of an entire planet, an Administrator's system of administration is not a closed one; rather, the Administrator is a mere layer of onion--within the interior lay the local population and their problems, be they panicky or legitimate; without lay the Federation and their problems, which tend to be unidirectional and nosy. When these two layers of influence coincide with their troubles, the pressure within the Administrator's own layer increases... not an ideal circumstance even for the best trained.

---

"Bound Janus" (Genkai no Yanus, 1974) - 5/5

Gun'gazen is richly endowed with heavy metals and is controlled by Administrator Sei. Though his robots tend to automatically do all the surveying, contact, and planning, Sei is needed to dictate Federation policy and act as the face of that policy with locals--both the native Gun'gazea and the human colonists. The two are prohibited from trade, yet they continue to smuggle goods, regardless of the robots' intervention. Sei meets with the colonists only to learn that their resistance is being organized by an ex-Administrator. 79 pages

With increased redundancy, an Administrator helps useless yet responsible. They go through their actions as numb as routine, failing to see their impact on their worldly task, which is governed largely by untouchable policy and efficient robots. Who used to be a player is now a pawn, but that pawn has been trained to a fine degree and their sense of responsibility doesn't slacken... even when push comes to shove, the Administrator will fight back to show they are not a failure.


Salmonella Men on Planet Porno
Salmonella Men on Planet Porno
Price: £4.39

5.0 out of 5 stars Superlative collection of salarymen's struggle and author's originality, 16 Feb. 2015
I first read Tsutsui's work in Kurodahan's anthology Speculative Japan (2007) with his short story "Standing Woman" (1974/1981). Each time I read the story, a new layer of relevance or context is added; the work is interesting, unique, penetrating, and thoughtful. While researching Tsutsui's work, I came upon a collection of his--Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (2006)--that was entirely translated by the talented Andrew Driver. Nearly all the stories uphold the same four adjectives, making is a superlative piece of collected fiction, some of which is also science fiction.

The most insightful of the stories (i.e., "Rumours About Me", "The Very Edge of Happiness", "Commuter Army", and "Bad for the Heart") are specifically about the life and trouble of salarymen. These capture of the essence of the modern urban life of the common working man, the man who earns a decent living in an otherwise indecent world--that of the corporate world, the slow grindstone of morale driven by the gears of money and so-called progress. I love these stories and "The Very Edge of Happiness" has vaulted itself onto the top ten stories (non-novel) of all-time.

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The Dabba Dabba Tree (1973/20006, short story) - 4/5
Synopsis: A husband and wife find themselves frustrated by an awkward inactive sex life until one their father's gifts them with the Dabba Dabba Tree. Set near the bed, when asleep, each live a vivid dream where they experience sexual freedom; they imbibe in their lust knowing it's only a dream. The dream state is a dangerous haven for others as they are mere figments, but soon their neighbor claims his own tree and covets the man's wife.

Rumours About Me (1972/2006, short story) - 4/5
Synopsis: As a common office worker in Shinjuku, Tsutomu Morishita is shocked to learn that his daily routine and insignificant transgressions have become major news on TV, on the radio, and in print. Every details of his life, aside from this vented frustration at the media, is somehow published for all to see, especially his attempts at dating the office girl named Akiko. As a nobody who has unwillingly become a somebody, Tsutomu must stop this.

Don't Laugh (1975/2006, short story) - 3/5
Synopsis: The gravity of Saita's dilemma sounded serious and sincere over the phone, so his friend rushes over to his house to console him. Actually, Saita has invented another machine, adding one more to his growing list of patents. But when Saita breaks the news that his invention is a time machine, the duo break into a fit of hysterical laughter while looking at and, later, using the same contraption.

Farmer Airlines (1974/2006, short story) - 4/5
Synopsis: Two men are on assignment for an unpopular men's magazine doing a story on uninhabited islands in Japan. Their story takes them to Tit Island, home to terraced farms but without any permanent farmers. Taken to the island by boat before, the writer and his photographer become stranded on the island during a typhoon. They seek shelter in a lean-to hut and discover two drunken farmers and an ominously sounding airline service to the mainland.

Bear's Wood Main Line (1974/2006, short story) - 3/5
Synopsis: On a personal quest for the best buckwheat noodles, one man takes a long train ride. On that ride, a kind fellow traveler informs him of a little known train line that could save him four hours of travel time. The Bear's Wood Main Line seems to be owned and operated by the man's clan but he's evasive about their responsibilities to the Line. Atop the hill, the man's family is hosting a wake, yet their giddy ways enliven his unparticipative state.

The Very Edge of Happiness (1973/2006, short story) - 5/5
Synopsis: A life dedicated to his work, one man's unfortunate outcome also seems him living with his mother, wife, and son. Usually tetchy, once a month, circumstances get the best of him and he treats both his wife and son abusively. His numbness is confirmed when he, and others, witness a mother beat her child to death in a bank. This emotional fatigue extends to a long holiday where car traffic and foot traffic wear all tempers and souls thin.

Commuter Army (1973/2006, novelette) - 4/5
Synopsis: A Japanese man is the branch manager for an arms manufacturer that has supplied five hundred rifles to the Galibian side of the non-Japanese war. To entice recruits, the Balibian army has hired part-time soldiers who can commute home after a battle...if they don't die first. The manager is mildly interested, but gets thrown into the war so he can fix the rifles that his company produced, earning him a second salary as a non-combatant.

Hello, Hello, Hello! (1974/2006, short story) - 4/5
Synopsis: Just a salaryman, one man and his wife casually save money for a home and retirement--eventually--, but are tempted by simple luxuries. As they discuss buying new clothes at the breakfast table, a man enters their home uninvited and announces himself to be from the bank's Household Economy Consultants. Each time they face a monetary choice, he mysteriously pops into their home denouncing their activities and urges extreme frugalness.

The World is Tilting (1989/2006, novelette) - 4/5
Synopsis: The city of Marine City is floating in the sea and uses pachinko balls as ballast, which were used in a checkerboard arrangement under the city at the mayor's expressed command--Fedora Last. Now, after a typhoon, the island city tilts three degrees to the SSE--an obvious listing for a professor and engineer. Regardless of expert advice, the female mayor and her housewife retinue vehemently deny any such tilt, even as it passes twenty degrees.

Bravo Herr Mozart! (1970/2006, short story) - 2/5
Synopsis: With a random smattering of scattered data, a biographer pieces together a bizarre picture of Mozart's life. Little known extrapolations include the fact he was born with only three fingers but later only had a single digit; he was born at the age of three and never had a mother; he once fancied Maria Antoinette but lost her; and become involved in an orgy in which he married the unfavorable of the three sisters.

The Last Smoker (1987/2006, short story) - 4/5
Synopsis: A well respected and widely published writer is irked by a reporter's business card that reads "Thank You For Not Smoking". As a chain smoker himself, he denies them the literary interviews and becomes the butt of growing scorn over everyone who smokes. Tobacco smokers become persecuted, then ostracized and, finally, they are lynched and burned. The writer remains one of the last smokers still standing in a smoker's haven.

Bad for the Heart (1972/2006, novelette) - 4/5
Synopsis: Suda is host to an illness of the heart; whether his is a physical or mental symptom depends on who you ask. Regardless of many doctors' opinions, he trusts the one doctor's diagnosis that it's mental strain; thereby, he alters his lifestyle to suit the prognosis. His wife nags and nags, giving him palpitations; his work has assigned him to a remote island, giving him further palpitations. Now, his wife will spend eight months with him there and his meds haven't arrive yet.

Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (1977/2006, novella) - 4/5
Synopsis: Dr. Suiko Shimazaki is pregnant on the planet named Nakamura, but she hasn't been impregnated by a man; rather, the androspore of the native "widow's incubus" has planted the seed of life in her. The research team is unwilling to bring the abomination to full term in six days' time, so Yohachi must enter the humanoid camp nude to participate in their obscene activities--to learn the cure--but not before entering the libidinous jungle.


The Moon Moth and Other Stories
The Moon Moth and Other Stories
Price: £2.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Sophisticated, thoughtful, meandering, 9 Feb. 2015
Without a doubt, my favorite novelette of all-time is Jack Vance's "Dodkin's Job" (1959). I read this story in 2008 where it was included in Jerry Pournelle's libertarian anthology Survival of Freedom (1981). It has a collection of essays and short stories, but the words in Vance's story were the only ones that stuck with me for a long time. Its portrayal of bureaucracy, absurdity, resistance to the "organization", and blue collar tenacity left an indelible mark on the love for the SF genre.

In 2011, I took a course in M.Ed. program--Human Relations in Educational Administration. Our professor, bless and rest his soul, urged us to take a creative approach to our final individual project. I heard what my classmates were doing and I none of them sounded remotely interesting. To highlight managerial systems, I decided to reread and decode the systems found in "Dodkin's Job". The unusual approach earned me an 4.0 in the class (...and helped me on my way to a perfect 4.0 GPA for my degree, ahem).

Visit my blog for the more thorough examination of "Dodkin's Job".

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The Kokod Warriors (1952, novelette) - 5/5 - Magnus Ridolph smokes his last fine cigar and sips his last fine liqueur because the last of his money has run out, thanks to two men from the Outer Empire Investment and Realty Society. Just his luck, a woman approaches and offers him a handsome salary to rid one planet of war while ceasing the immoral betting on the same planet's wars by none other than the unscrupulous See and Holders. Once on the planet, the two men are skeptical of his presence, but Magnus has a plan.

The New Prime (1951, novelette) - 3/5 - Arthur Caversham of the planet Earth experiences a unique sort of social intuition. Bearwald of the planet Belosti must prove his aggressiveness in the heat of battle. Ceistan of the planet Praesepe must press on with a request to show his undying loyalty. Dolmor Daksat at the Imagicon on Staff must outwit his competitors in a showing of unrestrained imagination. And Ergan of the planet Chankozar experiences relentless torture through perseverance.

The Men Return (1957, shortstory) - 4/5 - In retrospect, life on Earth used to be an orderly affair when they used to take causality for granted. However, since Earth has swept into a spacial vacuum of non-causality, chaos has reigned--sane men have gone mad and insane men rule in their own fashion. Referred to as Organisms, the man men's random actions match the random ways of non-causality; the thin clan of the Relicts fear the Organisms' chaos and can't adapt to the shifting states of matter.

Ullward's Retreat (1958, novelette) - 5/5 - On an Earth with a population in the tens of billions, there are a number of luxuries; among them: absolute privacy and genuine algae. Landmaster Bruham Ullward has nearly an acre of indoor space dedicated to replicating the privacy of nature with genuine shrubs he call oak trees--his guests are quite impress but he needs more. He leases half a continent on a new planet, invites the same guests, who have the same complaints.

Coup de Grace (1958, shortstory) - 3/5 - Lester Bofils Is a noted anthropologist on a luxury space station in the shape of Indra's Web, where the renowned Magnus Ridolph also temporarily resides. Upon Lester's death, Magnus leads an investigation to solve his murder. Could it be any of his shipmates, of whom are his reputed wife, an alien of inhuman regards, and a variety of other suspects. Or could Lester's own cavemen slaves have killed him, or the statuesque stoic bonze?

Dodkin's Job (1959, novelette) - 5/5 - Luke Grogatch works for the District 8892 Sewer Maintenance Department. In the all encompassing Organization in which everyone lives, Luke is a Flunky/Class D/Unskilled laborer, just one rank sky of rock bottom Junior Executive. A directive is passed down through his lonely department that mandates he must return his shovel--after a ninety minute walk--to a warehouse on his own time. Seeing the ludicrousness in the order, Luke traces the levels of bureaucracy to its very origin.

The Moon Moth (1961, novelette) - 4/5 - Edwer Thissell was a rookie statesman before being assigned as Consular Representative on the planet with only three other foreigners. Prior to his assignment, he was unprepared for the planet's culture of masks, music, and conversational singing. As if learning the social necessities wasn't enough, Edwer now has to capture an infamous assassin who has just landed on the same planet. Edwer must figure out how to identify and capture a masked man among masked men.

Green Magic (1963, shortstory) - 3/5 - His great-uncle was a dabbler in the relams of magic: black, white, and even purple. But Gerald McIntyre discovers in his uncle's journal a type of magic new to himself, who is also a dab hand at magic: green magic. He summons the sprites of the realm and asks to learn their trade, yet they issue him a warning to not partake in green magic. He shrugs off the suggestion and spends decades of subjective time in its tedious detail and boredom.

Alfred's Ark (1965, shortstory) - 4/5 - According to the farmer named Alfred Johnson, God has given him a biblical message of a coming flood, but not just any old flood--the Great Flood. The newspaper refuses to print the "story" so he just buys an advertisement from the them and proceeds to build an ark on his own land. Its modest size won't hold couples of all the animals, but just the one's he selects. When the day approaches and the rains falls, he doesn't seem like a such a buffoon after all.

Sulwen's Planet (1968, shortstory) - 4/5 - A thousand light-years from Earth, a small desolate planet was discovered, an on surface were a number of alien ships from two starfaring species. The finding was the single most important discovery in human history, so the Sulwen Planet Survey Commission was established with a host of top experts. Among these experts were the conflicting areas of focus and personalities of Gench and Kosmin, a philologist and comparative linguist, respectively.

Rumfuddle (1973, novella) - 3/5 - Alan Robertson was once a philanthropist and inventor. When he invented the invention to end all inventions, society was changed forever--the personal infinite-dimensional gateway. Everyone lives on their own parallel Earth after years of labor for the privilege, but one of his adoptees--now a grown man with his own family, Gilbert Duray--cannot access his Home planet. It may be his wife's doing or his meddling friend and his confounded party called a Rumfuddle.
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Aphrodite
Aphrodite
by Masaki Yamada
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Lofty nostalgia versus the gravity of reality, 2 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Aphrodite (Paperback)
Prior to last year, this novel had been on my to-buy for ages and ages, but I never found a Kurodahan book at any bookstore I ever shopped at on two continents or online. I was becoming desperate--I must have this book! My last resort to quenching my thirst for Japanese speculative fiction and finally procuring the books was to contact the publisher. Masaki Yamada's novel Aphrodite was one book of many I received from Kurodahan Press after I politely inquired for nicely asked for begged on my hands and knees for translated Japanese SF. Edward Lipsett was kind enough to send me a Japanese SF care-package and I've been kind enough to give the books an honest review--and honestly, I love this stuff.

Rear cover synopsis:
"This is the story of Makita Yuichi, a youth who escapes the regimented world of Japanese society for the beauty and freedom of the island city Aphrodite. But as Yuichi grows and changes, we approach the true heroine of the work: the city Aphrodite--ever beautiful, ever filled with the limitless energy of creation. And as the global economy spirals downward, leaving Aphrodite a deserted slum slated for destruction, perhaps Yuichi is the only person who can save her..."

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Yuichi was only seventeen years old when he decided to leave his family. Slotted in the pit of urban, social, and spiritual decay, he had nothing to call his own, nothing with which to coddle or idolize, only "drifting aimlessly through life like a rudder-less ship" (11). He left his family in that insane city of Tokyo and emigrated to the land of opportunity--the floating city of Aphrodite. Here, he fancies himself a type of James Dean and begins to become optimistic. Now he has a cause for which to live.

Mr. Caan is a world-renowned architect who designed and had Aphrodite constructed; he's also a "sportsman, an international playboy, and ... a wielder of vast political power" (13). It is this influential man--the mayor of the city of Aphrodite--whom Yuichi works for as a mere boat boy for the mayor's rocket submersible. While Yuichi doesn't exactly idolize Mr. Caan, the mayor is the personification and driving force of Aphrodite. Soon, however, Yuichi will find himself questions other citizen's allegiance toward the city and it's demigod mayor.

As much as Yuichi thinks that Aphrodite is a heaven of sorts for himself and all disfranchised, Mr. Caan says that the city was structured to always be somewhat incomplete because,

people can't live in totally finished worlds. It is a city, and yet it isn't it's something else... People aren't such high-class animals. They can't live in a true utopia. An incomplete utopia--that's the best environment of all. (42)

The some-200,000 residents of the floating city live in "highly-advanced welfare system" (27), quartered in the city's regions: Herhead, the nautilus-shaped island's pinnacle; Herself, the administrative and nerve center; and Herleg and Herhip sections for common residency. Down by the docks of the island, Yuichi tends to the expensive submersible with caged desire to experience the machine under his own control.

On a casual evening with his friends, he meets a beautiful girl; however, his friend, also a boatboy, also thinks she's beautiful. This provides the ideal circumstance to test his ability to control the craft and control the direction of his own life. When a vortex of water disrupts the race and nearly kills them, Yuichi must accept his stupidity and must be confronted by the mayor-cum-boss Mr. Caan. Surprisingly, his punishment is absolved; surprisingly, his love interest is a lost cause; unsurprisingly, his life continues.

The prior events in 2018 mold Yuichi's life into its future form of disappointment the outcome of his expectations and disconnectedness with the island's social ethos. There seems to be going resistance toward Mr. Caan's clutch over the floating island's destiny--what was supposed to be unique outfit of sea civilization and exploration that could be employed by various nations has turned into one of a number of such floating islands. On Aphrodite's horizon, three futures loom: one of military affiliation, one of industrial taint, and another of touristy irrelevance.

Regardless of the expressed concern by many, Yuichi maintain his allegiance to Mr. Caan. Considering that the island is of his own design and destiny, he feels that Mr. Caan knows best about all decisions, even though Mr. Caan had some previous poor decisions in his personal life. Whether in 2023 or 2028, Yuichi keeps to his hope as an 18-year-old that Aphrodite will blossom in its own way. Flows of nostalgia engulf Yuichi as the sentiment around him regresses: "[F]ear was rooted deep inside himself, and that was why he was scared to look at reality, instead fleeing into nostalgia" (94).

While Aphrodite is on the brink of disastrous uncertainty regarding its future as a seafaring city of welfare and camaraderie, the cusp of reality encroaches upon Yuichi and soon the cusp broadens into a crack, a crevice, an expanding chasm of doubt. This doubt plagues him; the years of lost love and lost hope age him immediately when reality sinks in: Aphrodite isn't perfect and is no longer viable. Having lost his love, hope, and passion, Yuichi departs in 2028 only to return on the eve of Aprhodite's destruction many years later--though still a young man then in appearance, his experiences have aged him greatly.

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The syrupy nostalgia of Yuichi is a common sentiment among those with sheltered hopes. His dreams aren't exactly shattered because his motivation for moving to the island was simply one of living simply; in this, he achieves his goal to a fault. He has incubated his hope for so long on a personal basis that he hasn't developed additional hopes or shared his life. From 18 to 28 years of age, he remains detached from popular opinion. When turmoil effervesces from the cracks in society, Yuichi remains coldly subjective in the sense that he doesn't understand the negativity and as someone who loves Aphrodite, the negativity must not exist.

Like the island upon the sea is, at first, an independent entity free from outside influence, so too is Yuichi. As Aphrodite's independence is being dissolved and its importance diminished, Yuichi too is quickly becoming prone to the sentiments of others--his long-incubated personal hope begins to feel the chilly persuasion of the population. When he realizes his loss, his precarious hope is teetering high upon a cliff with only reality to assist its plunge.

Aphrodite is an introspective foray into escapism and caged hope in conflict with reality. Yamada paints a dualistic portrait of a solitary man with his solitary dreams on a solitary island... but when the latter-most is encroached upon by outside influences, the former two become tainted and diseased--if the dream is not amputated, the death of the individual would quickly follow.


Breath of God
Breath of God
by Jeffrey Small
Edition: Paperback
Price: £2.06

2.0 out of 5 stars Modern pulp through and through, 17 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Breath of God (Paperback)
I can’t define what “popular fiction” is, but I tend to steer away from it. Is it similar to “pop music”, meant for the broadest spectrum of people for mass consumption? Is it similar to “pop art”, whimsical pieces to catch the eye and entertain? Does popularity equate to quality? Are the hordes of people reading the same book happy? To mince a quote from one of my favorite “popular fiction” titles, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1996): Do people read to popular fiction because they are miserable? Or are they miserable because they read popular fiction?

In regards to modern popular authors, I haven’t read Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Meyer, but I have read Tom Clancy (The Hunt for Red October [1984]), Stephen King(The Running Man [1982]), and Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain [1969])… all oldies. More modern popular fiction… I’ll have to consult my database (beep beep boop): Yan Martel’s Life of Pi (2001), Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (1997), and Alex Garland’s The Beach (1996). That’s about as modern as I get for popular fiction.

Now, we come to Jeffrey Small’s Breath of God (2011). How did this end up on my to-read shelf? I thank one of my M.Ed. professors for sending me two boxes laden with secondhand goodies from his father’s library sale. He knew I liked fiction and he knew I used to study Buddhism (as a hobby and during my B.A.), but, while his heart was in the right place, this novel was flatter than a saltine cracker on my tongue’s palate (dimensionally, texturally, and taste-wise).

Rear cover synopsis:
“A murder at the Taj Mahal. A kidnapping in a sacred city. A desperate chase through a cliffside monastery. All in the pursuit of a legend that could link the world’s great religious faiths.

In 1887, a Russian journalist made an explosive discovery in a remote Himalayan monastery only to be condemned and silenced for the heresy he proposed. His discovery vanished shortly thereafter.

Now, graduate student Grant Matthews journeys to the Himalayas in search of this ancient mystery. But Matthews couldn’t have anticipated the conspiracy of zealots who would go to any lengths to prevent him from bringing this secret public. Soon he is in a race to expose a truth that will change the world’s understanding of religion. A truth that his university colleagues believe is mere myth. A truth that will change his life forever—if he survives.”

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Though I went through nine years of Catholic school, I immediately left the church after leaving the school; thus came four years of a-religious tendencies. In university, I was brought back into the fold of religion through my personal interest in world religions, both in courses and in my free time, mainly Buddhism. I had many interests in Buddhism and devoured many texts and devoted lots of time to its practice. Even back then (circa 2000), even though I was a highfalutin grad student, I saw and accepted the similarities between the world religions (through Theravada Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and beyond). So, when a writer pens a novel like Breath of God based on those similarities, it holds an intrigue for me.

On that account—the cross-pollination of ideas in world religions—, the novel does an OK job of capturing its essence for the average reader (it is popular fiction, after all). Small pulls together a lot of facts together with some speculation into a taffy-like plot that stretches its effect to the nth degree. The outcome is interesting, the worldly implications are intriguing, and the secret history of Jesus is also a gem… but when taken together with the pulpiness of its delivery, the novel reads like and has the predictability of a paint-by-numbers picture.

For the sake of convenience and sturdy construction, many parts of the novel are made of wood: the evangelical reverend (Brady) is greedy and preachy, the religious studies graduate student (Grant) is open-minded and persistent, the religious extremist (Huntley) is amoral and internally conflicted, and the lone female role (Minaski) is supportive, of course. Those are the roles, but all characters must also have a flaw: Brady’s ignorance, Grant’s naivety, Huntley’s over-confidence, and Minaski’s… well, she’s just a supportive female so she doesn’t count. The only other female in the book—Professor Martha Simpson—gets blown to smithereens by a bomb, so she’s not worth mentioning either.

Playing their parts to stereotypes, the American evangelical camp is avaricious, scheming, and hell-bent on dogma while the Bhutanese Buddhist camp is simple, serene, and pragmatic. In the American corner, there remains the loose cannon of Huntley, not directly under the employ of Brady, but definitely a wildcard if exposed; in the Bhutanese corner, the wildcard is the abbot of the temple who doesn’t want the texts exposed to the world. Exposure, for both sides of the world and of the story, is a shame worse than the truth.

In the end, this isn’t promoted as “a novel of religious inquiry”, “a novel of spiritual enlightenment”, or “a novel of male dominance in religion and religious studies”… but it’s promoted as “a novel of suspense”. Like the characters and the plot, the suspense is also as predictable as a child’s match-the-shape-with-the-hole game—where it feel like the plot needs an injection of suspense, in the next page it springs. And you know, in those really bad Hollywood action movies, where the villain seems like he dies, only he has one last gasp of energy to revenge himself and attacks—not once, but twice—and the viewer just screams at the screen, “Just kill the bastard!”… well, it’s the same in this book.

Then there’s the end, which is all inclusive and wholly satisfying to those who demand a dreamy marriage, a wonderful promotion, and a all-encompassing personal history rehash. It’s everything that a typical epilogue should be and—while I understand that it should provide closure—it’s all too laid out, neat, fanciful, ideal, etc. It simply reeks of being a popular fiction epilogue, a pulpy ending to a pulpy book. After all the terribly predictable suspense, the conclusion is a terribly written piece of gristle at the end of a chewy string of pulp.


Ancestor
Ancestor
Price: £5.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Pulpy and awkward adaptation from a Podcast, 5 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Ancestor (Kindle Edition)
Have you ever read a novelization? I've read a few (the Alien trilogy being quite good) but two in mind felt quite wooden, awkward on the page: Gipe's mildly interesting Back To The Future (1985) and Telep's disastrous Red Planet (2000). Of course, a novelization is a novel written from the screenplay of a movie, but sometimes that doesn't translate very well and it leaves the novelization, as said, wooden and awkward, unfit for the story to be experienced as a novel.

Finding new SF is a difficult process. I have my entourage of favorite modern authors (e.g., Hamilton, Banks, Reynolds, Bear, Brin, Brown, Robinson, Egan) but I've nearly read all their bibliographies. I tend to read novels from the 1970s but sometimes I want something fresh, so I take a chance on a newer novel from the secondhand bookstore. I spotted Ancestor and it sounded like the perfect fusion of SF and horror--a difficult sub-genre to do well. Unknown to me--because I haven't been in the technological loop for 12 or more years--Scott Sigler is well known for producing the first serial novel via Podcast from 2005-2006 and one year later it was printed as a novel. And like a novelization, the story, again, felt wooden and awkward, poorly adapted from one medium to another (Podcast to novel).

Rear cover synopsis:
"On a remote island in the Canadian Arctic, a group of geneticists has dialed back the evolutionary clock to re-create humankind's common ancestor. The method? Illegal. The result? A computer-engineered living creature, an animal whose organs can be implanted in any person, with no chance of transplant rejection.

The breakthrough could save millions of lives--and make billions for the company backing this desperate gambit.

There's just one problem: these ancestors are not the docile herd animals their creators envisioned. Instead, their work has given birth to something big, something evil... something very, very hungry."

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I should pay attention to covers more closely. I would have jerked knees, elbows, jaw and toes if I had read more finely that Sigler is compared to both Michael Crichton and Stephen King. He's also compared to Richard Matheson (of I Am Legend [1954]) and Chuck Palahniuk (of Fight Club [1996]) but I have no experience with those authors. However, Crichton and King are two mainstream writes who I do have experience with and, generally, their writing feels as mediocre as their popularity--where does their popularity stem from, I am clueless.

Rather than feeling like the modern pulp fiction of Crichton or King, Ancestor feels like a James Rollins novel, books of whom I thankfully haven't read since 2007 when I realized, after three novels, that he was a s*** writer (Deep Fathom [2001] is one of the top ten worst books I've ever read). After three novels, the writing was so systematic that it felt soulless and then it got worse by being ridiculous.

So, in essence, Ancestor has the bad qualities of a novelization and systematic pulp. There everything you would expect from a pulpy thriller novel: (1) a corporation willing to do anything to get what they want; (2) a scientific experience that goes awry; (3) remote locations that isolate the plot and characters; (4) a healthy dose of helicopters, planes, guns, and explosions; (5) military bigwigs aching to topple the project; and (6) a romance overshadowed by tension. But don't forget that this is also a so-called science fiction novel, so it must adhere to the clichés of the genre: (1) pedantic scientific lingo, (2) brief orations about the same lingo, (3) obtuse deductions that are always perfect, and (4) features the most gifted--but ultimately flawed--mind.

The entire cast of characters are a bit flat; though some history is provided for each, it feels dull and forced, thereby lending no motivation to their actions... that is, aside from the pivotal character of Liu Jian Da. She's the one character who makes or breaks the transgenetic project and who also saves them or kills them all. She's a genius and in the top of her field (see SF cliché #4) but has hallucinations stemming from her work of mixing genes and body parts. Her own motivations, as she later finds out, are beside herself; she understands what she has done but not why she has done it. She watched the horror unfold, knowing only unto herself that this was a big, big mistake.

That big, big mistake was supposed to be a herd of tame herbivores that would grow human organs for transplant. That what she thought she had coded into the genes of the ova, but she later finds out that she coded for something entirely different for reasons she's unclear of. Either way, the multiplying cells in the cows' wombs are growing at a ridiculously accelerated rate--something she did code for--but not to the size that they are becoming. Rather than hooved ungulates passively chewing grass, the little monsters within are sharply clawed, have jaw of menacing power, and exhibit a carnivorous appetite while in utero (originally all the sets were developing as twins, but one of them devoured the other). It's a predictable (based on the synopsis) ruse but aside from the orations of the lingo, this is thick of the novel, this is what you're paying for. Unfortunately, there very little else to carry it.

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In the end, the publisher is pushing this to be a mainstream thriller, so they print enticing quotes from authors everyone knows in order to entice the easy-to-please mainstream reader. Maybe there's a small resemblance to a "the more of the story is..." but the thriller aspect of the novel distracts from the possible message of scientific ethics. It's not altogether terrible, nor is it terribly exciting or interesting to read; it teeters on the brink of mediocrity and slides into the chasm of pulp.


Home Fires
Home Fires
by Gene Wolfe
Edition: Paperback

2.0 out of 5 stars Dreamlike: dissociative rather than ethereal, 25 Nov. 2014
This review is from: Home Fires (Paperback)
Wolfe is notable for his evasive writing style with which he seems to skirt the plot he wants to write about and, instead, works around it with vagueness and nebulousness. This applies to his short stories and his novels. While the circumspect style is manageable is most of his short stories (Starwater Strains [2005]), it has been a wondrous circumnavigation for his novels: Nightside the Long Sun (1993), the remainder of the Book of the Long Sun series, and The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1973).

In 2011, I was excited to hear of Gene Wolfe's new novel, Home Fires, but I couldn't buy it immediately; I had to wait two years, find it at a secondhand shop, then wait another year before it came up on my reading list. When I had to make yet another trans-Pacific flight, I chose Home Fires so I could sink into Wolfe's elegant, lovely prose. Sadly, I couldn't sink into as I was kept at aloft like an air balloon, soaring further and further away from the surface of the novel. Interesting premise... but a maze within.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Gene Wolfe takes us to a future North America at once familiar and utterly strange. A young man and woman, Skip and Chelle, fall in love in college and marry, but she is enlisted in the military, there is a war on, and she must serve her tour of duty before they can settle down. But the military is fighting a war with aliens in distant solar systems, and her months in the service will be years in relative time on Earth. Chelle returns to recuperate from severe injuries, after months of service, still a young woman but not necessarily the same person--while Skip is in his forties and a wealthy businessman, but eager for her return.

Still in love (somewhat to his surprise and delight), they go on a Caribbean cruise to resume their marriage. Their vacation rapidly becomes a complex series of challenges, not the least of which are spies, aliens, and battles with pirates who capture the ship for ransom. There is no writer in SF like Gene Wolfe and no SF novel like Home Fires."

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For a reviewer who likes to write 1000-, 2000-, and 3000-word reviews, I surprise myself when I say that I have very little to add to the book's own synopsis. The novel is just as jumbled as it says: "spies, aliens, and battles with pirates". There's a whole lot going on, but one top of all that craziness there's actually a mystery whodunit plot, but it doesn't redeem the destruction which had already been wrought.

As the book's synopsis says, a "contracted" partnership between Chelle (the contracta) and Skip (the contracto) enters an interesting phase as Chelle decides to enlist and be sent for duty far, far away. The effects of her few years of duty are at relativistic speeds, so time is dilated; therefore, time on Earth passes decades while only years have passed for Chelle.

Skip is eager to welcome home his contracta. He has been building an empire of money and law from his downtown practice where he is junior partner. With this financial asset benefiting him, he sees the perfect opportunity to give Chelle a unique gift when she returns; though Chelle's mother (Vanessa) died years ago, Skip obtains her last brain scan that holds all her memories and then pays for the procedure that transfers them into a temporary but willing and walking body. When Chelle returns, she'll have the chance to catch up with her mom, regardless of the fact that her physical appearance won't be the same and that Chelle actually divorced her parents prior to enlisting.

On her arrival, Chelle somehow recognizes her mother yet not her contracto. Chelle's mother makes blatant moves on Skip, but he continually deflects the unwanted flattery and stays eager for the reunion with Chelle. The relationship is tenuous; when you think it would be a passionate and romantic, but the reunion unfolds as professional, almost like a stable relationship between a naughty secretary and her respectable male boss (Skip also has a secretary as a mistress, so he's used to this kind of relationship). In order to reunite, Skip books a luxurious cruise... but things go awry, as the synopsis points out.

First, though booked to be alone on the pleasure cruise, it turns out that Vanessa had somehow pulled some strings and became employed as the social director on board. This is only the first turn of events on the otherwise perfect-for-an-hour-or-two cruise: Chelle feels the need to buy a gun, the two befriend an armless man who hooks them up, they dance and buy a few guns; pirates storm the ship, guns go ablaze, Chelle goes missing, and ransom is demanded; people are interrogated, Skip's contacts come to the rescue, Skip runs into his secretary/flame, and some people die while some people live.

That's that in a nutshell.

In addition to the bizarre twists in an equally as bizarre story line, there is even more to complain about. I remember the Book of the Long Sun series to have eloquent passages of atmosphere and observation--a syrupy passage of beauty! Even Wolfe's much earlier The Fifth Head of Cerberus had passages similar to this beauty. While dialogue has never been superfluous to Wolfe's novels, it has always been satisfactory. Now in Home Fires, it feels like 80% of the novel is entirely dialogue... all talk, no walk. This results is a sluggish pace where every detail is discussed or hypothesizes but very little is actually done... not that the book is necessarily an action novel, but there's just nothing to contrast the lethargic dialogue.

Matt Hilliard, from Strange Horizons, offers more on this odd facet of Home Fires:

"When characters aren't talking, the narrative races at breakneck speed to get to the next conversation. There is a lot of action in the story, yet very little of it is described. Instead, we learn about events through allusions made in later conversations ... These lacunae are also a tool that Wolfe uses to temporarily conceal the reasons why things happen until after the fact, and both the jumps forward in time and the unexpected events that follow them cement the novel's dreamlike feel."

And like Matt, I agree that the arch-theme of Home Fires is one of dysfunction. It's obvious that Skip is disjointed one way or another, Chelle herself has a loose grip on reality, and the constant turn of events is unsettling; compound this with the endless dialogue and, indeed, it does have a "dreamlike feel" but it's also frustrating--here "dreamlike" meaning dissociative rather than ethereal.

If the reader's expectation for this novel rest with their prior experience with Wolfe's work, the reader may be greatly disappointed. While reading, if you want to take one thing away from this novel's experience, it will be that, somehow, all the bizarre aspects of the novel doesn't feel all that odd... it just happens to be dissociative rather than ethereal.


The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers)
The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers)
by Peter F. Hamilton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.00

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Detoured return to the Void of expectation, 6 Nov. 2014
Of Hamilton's sixteen-book bibliography, I've now polished off eleven of the tomes, including the Night's Dawn trilogy (1996-1999) which I read earlier this year. Though that trilogy isn't his earliest work--a sticky -note factoid which belongs to the Greg Mandel trilogy (1993-1995)--everything which made the trilogy a popular success (subjectively, no) can be found is the rest of his work. It's difficult to boil down the essentials and give it a name, but technology, horror, telepathy, and investigation play a heavy hand in most of his novels--that goes for Great North Road (2012), somewhat. Now, after reading The Abyss Beyond Dreams (2014), I realize that these same themes are becoming redundant.

The Commonwealth Universe series of novels (minus Misspent Youth [2002]) started off with a bang in Pandora's Star (2004) and continued unabated through more than a thousand pages in its sequel Judas Unchained (2005). I was hyped by the announcement of the Void trilogy (2007-2010) and actually found the storyline in the Void to be more interested than the storyline in the Commonwealth! But after the third book--The Evolutionary Void (2011)--I was getting a bit tired of the bucolic supernatural world of the Void and wanted the sharp tang of a technological fix from the Commonwealth. The conclusion to The Evolutionary Void finished, satisfyingly, on that same note and many overtones for teasers into The Fallers duology.

In my review for The Evolutionary Void, I mentioned four threads which were left hanging, possibly as an enticement for the continuation of the Commonwealth series. Two of these threads turned out to be dead ends in regards to The Fallers duology, but two of the same ones I mentioned hit the nail on the head: What happened to the far-flung colonists aboard the Brandt Dynasty ships? What happened to Nigel and his trans-galactic fleet?

In Judas Unchained (2005), Nigel's fleet is first mentioned as an escape for his Dynasty from the possible defeat by the Primes:

"Nigel had authorized eleven of the vast ships, with initial component acquisition consent for another four. In theory, just one ship could carry enough equipment and genetic material to establish a successful high-technology human society from scratch. But Nigel had wanted to begin with more than the basics, and his Dynasty was the largest in the Commonwealth. A fleet would make absolutely sure any new human civilization they founded would succeed." (622)

Very early, The Dreaming Void (2007) mentions both fleets:

"The last major departure had been in AD 3000, when Nigel Sheldon himself led a fleet of ten starships, the largest craft ever built, to set up a `new human experience' elsewhere. It was strongly rumoured at the time that the ships had a trans-galactic flight range." (323)

"But Mellanie's Redemption was a fine ship, she should be able to make the trip out to the Drasix cluster, fifty thousand lightyears away, where the Brandt Dynasty ships were said to have flown." (324)

The Evolutionary Void (2010) also mentions Nigel's fleet:

"Nigel Sheldon had offered Ozzie another way out, a berth on the Sheldon family armada of colony starships. They weren't just going to the other side of the galaxy to set up a new society. Oh, no, not Nigel; he was off to a whole new galaxy to begin again. A noble quest, restarting human civilization in a fresh part of the universe. Then in another thousand years a new generation of colony ships might spread to further galaxies. After all, as he'd pointed out, this one is ultimately doomed with the Void at the center, so we need somewhere that's got a long-term future". (410-411)

And then, this fleet magically triples in the timeline of The Abyss Beyond Dreams: "3000: Sheldon Dynasty colony fleet (thirty starships) leaves Commonwealth, believed to possess long-range trans-galactic flight capability" (ix).

The Abyss Beyond Dreams starts off with a 94-page ordeal of one of the nine Brandt colony ships--the Vermillion. It seems that all of the ships passing near the Void had been transported into the Void universe. Crew are being thawed from their sleep only to suffer unpleasant side-effects of the Void's technological restrictiveness, just as their ship experiences limitations, but they have all the benefits of the seemingly supernatural telekinesis and other powers Edeard had. Two objects pique the interest of those on the Vermillion: the planet on which they may land and the curious crystalline Forest. The planet, however, isn't the fabled planet of Edeard. It still looks inhabitable, so the Vermillion aims for the planet while a splinter group investigate the odd emerald crystal Forest--Laura Brandt is among that crew and she absolutely loves the word "bollocks", which she says twenty-five times in 94 pages. Unfortunately, the crystal resists their persistent probing as automatic probe simply disappear from sight, then even the Vermillion and the planet disappear. Still enticed by its mystery and uncertain of the Skylords' vague dialogue, they push on to attain a sample from crystalline egg sacs at its extremes. Once the human crew touch the eggs, they become absorbed. Laura, still on the observation ship, later sees them return yet acting oddly. Horror quickly falls upon the observation ship as they devour its human crew, yet Laura miraculously escapes to the surface of the planet. This is only the beginning of her personal horror.

This opening premise is a great start because it captures the imagination with the "lost fleet", the idea that a fleet of humanity became stranded and experiences the hardships of its locality. This location isn't a desert island with cannibals, but it's The Void in all its weirdness. All readers of the Void trilogy are aware of Edeard's planet named Querencia, but it was just an assumption that this was the only planet it the void. Also an assumption, people believed that the Skylords were native to the Void and that they were the only bizarre manifestations within the Void. It's a bit of a stretch for the reader to experience two new revelations from the Vermillion: there's another planet and there's another oddity; also, that oddity had the oddest of qualities and is perhaps even the key to understanding the Void and--boom!--it's right on their doorstep.

The vigilant Raiel maintain a million-year sentry post around the Void, fearful of its ever-consuming growth. The Raiel are able to enter the Void universe, but their mighty warship fleet had never been heard from again. They tracked the Brandt colony ships across space and become concerned about their possible penetration into the Void, a rather odd development considering it has never happened in one million years. Though powerful in innumerous regards, they need the help of one man to unravel the mystery of the Brandt fleet's disappearance: welcome back to the scene and the series Nigel Sheldon!

For some reason (nostalgia, perhaps?), Nigel invites Paula Myo along for the Void mission. However, she'll stay aboard the observation vessel along with Nigel's original self. Nigel's clone is the one who must do the dirty work and investigate two things: What happened to the Brandt colony fleet? How can the Void be destroyed? As the cloned Nigel in the Void experiences the planet of Bienvenido, his "dreams" are broadcast to the original Nigel in the normal universe. Just as Edeard and the crew of the Vermillion have extra-sensory powers, Nigel, too, wields the same; Nigel is most aware of Edeard's powers because he and Paul had snuck in and witnessed all of Edeard's dreams, stolen from Inigo the Dreamer and cult leader of Living Dream. This also seems like a stretch, a hastily included act to set the precedence for Nigel's infiltration to the Void. So, while the initial 94 pages are an intriguing start to the novel, the next section where Nigel, Paula and the Raiel plan their infiltration is a bit of a hasty rush, something which I've never said for any Hamilton novel... slow and steady, that's typically his pace until the conclusion and only then is it a hasty retreat.

The novel opens up a third story, which remains the focus of The Abyss Beyond Dreams: Planet-bound on Bienvenido, Slvasta is a simple commanding officer for the regiment in charge of protecting the village of Cham from bandits and Fallers. Bandits may be a daily fear, but the Fallers are a three-millennium long fear engraved into the conscious of every human on Bienvenido. Slvasta's squad is called to investigate one such Faller alert. Though the scientists regard the green Forest in space as the source of the Fallers, they have no way to track their movement toward Bienvenido and are only alerted when they streak groundward. They know a few other things, too: (1) the heaven-fallen eggs enrapture humans near it thus drawing them into it, eggsuming them, and creating an evil twin which cannibalizes living human bodies and (2) they can be destroyed in egg form or ersatz human form.

This is, again, all a curious development because Edeard's city and planet were never hampered by these falling demons from the Forest. The Forest and the Fallers are both an entirely new development which was never mentioned in any of the three books in the Void trilogy. Again, this seems like a desperate attempt on Hamilton's part to explain the mysteries of the Void after already having developed the mysteries without the answer... kind of like BSing on an exam. Taken by itself or taken in context with the other Commonwealth books, this book is just odd as the majority of the storyline (other than Nigel, the Void and the Raiel) does not reflect its predecessors.

Thereon, in itself a good story, Slvasta makes some revelations about the need for progress and change through revolution--the seed for this revolution was planted by Nigel himself when they crossed paths on the riverside while Slvasta was out seeking Fallers. Nigel, wise for more than a thousand years, impresses Slvasta with the kernel of truth: Bienvenido will not change itself nor will it change from the top; it will only change from its core--the people. After Slvasta is given a seat of power so that he can stop the culling of modified animals (remember the genistars from the Void, mind-crafted animals for a specific purpose?) because they are easily controlled by Fallers and a clear threat to humans, he doesn't lie still for long. Witnessing the turgid bureaucracy of his government, Slavasta realizes he is in a position to make those changes that Bienvenido needs--a revolution is at hand!

Slvasta's story thread of social upheaval doesn't garner much interest. Behind this storyline, there are three lurking agents of change which that impinge on the flow of events: (1) The Captain and his mansion, (2) Nigel and his farm, and (3) Laura Brandt and he perpetual descent.

The Captain and His Mansion
More than three thousand year ago, the Brandt colony vessel named Vermillion made landfall and established exactly what it was intended to do, just not in the same universe. The captain--Captain Cornelius--was the first "Captain" of Bienvenido and, three thousand years later through direct lineage, Captain Philious now reigns with an iron fist, quashing any protest or revolt. Under his palace lay the remains the Vermillion, rich with ancient Commonwealth technology but sitting idle as much of it doesn't work under The Void's bizarre quantum structure. Much of this is unknown to the commonfolk of Bienvenido, but Nigel knows and Nigels sees opportunity.

Nigel and His Farm
To avoid suspicion from the locals, Nigel establishes a farm on the town's outskirts. However, being the eclectic man he is, Nigel pushes the limits of technology on this backwater world where electronics don't work: steam engines are created, unique genistars are produced, and other scientific dalliances abound. He's definitely up to something. Ultimately, his goal to is destroy the Void and free the humans from the grip of its quantum tyranny, but he must tick off a long list of mental exercises so that he can accomplish his personal goal and as a favor to the Raiel. Once such jaunt is to the Desert of Bone, which is rumored to be piled with bones and watched over by a monster; however, once there, Nigel witnesses a massive heap of expods, the exact same exopod that Laura used to save herself and enter the atmosphere... just multiplied by hundreds of thousands.

Laura Brandt and Her Perpetual Descent
In the back of the reader's mind, there should rest of curious case of Laura Brandt. She descended to Bienvenido in her exopod with a shattered ankle only to see the exact same exopod fall from the sky on top of hers, whereby she cracks the hatch and kills her new self. Multiply this scene by three thousand years; it's grisly, it's cool. The ramifications of this oddity are blurry but enticing, one thread of the novel which had my mind reeling.

And... if you've been reading Hamilton's work for a while, you there some sex stashed away somewhere! I remember a few vivid scenes--not necessarily good scenes, mind you--in the Void trilogy. Abyss only has one sex scene but, boy, is it a doozy. It's so bad, I actually guffawed aloud and read it to my colleague:

"Her hands were fumbling with his shirt. He used his teekay to lift her dress off. They fell back onto the mattress, touching and caressing skin as it was freed from the restriction of clothes. When they were naked, she straddled him, surrounded by bright sunlight pouring in through the bay window behind her. He used his teekay to pull her down, impaling her. The sunlight seemed to flow around her, turning his world to a glorious white blaze as she cried out. Then she was riding him, letting him into her thoughts to reveal her body's secret demands, pleading with him to perform them. He responded with equal intimacy, sharing his physical appetite. And a completely uninhibited Bethaneve used her hands and mouth and tongue and teekay to delight him in all the ways he'd always fantasized she would." (284)

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If you're familiar with the Night's Dawn trilogy, a few facets from there will certainly surface in Abyss: the existence of souls and the evilness of those changed. If you're familiar with the Commonwealth and Void series, you see a few thematic reflections in Abyss: the sexualized young girl who can change the world, the bucolic hardships of the Void, and scientific progress à la Nigel and Ozzie. There's something recognizable about Hamilton's writing, in the thematic sense, and it's becoming apparent that he has a formula that hasn't changed with the times. This may be because I indulged gluttonously, though not with great satisfaction, on all three Night's Dawn books this year. But there's also the expectation of continuing a series without dropping all this new razzle-dazzle on the plate of the reader, very little of it familiar. There's that word again--familiar. For something of the unfamiliar, try Hamilton's collection Manhattan in Reverse (2011).

So, some element of Abyss are agreeably familiar while others are disagreeably familiar. One might think a one-off novel might stray from this familiarity but even Great North Road suffers from these ubiquitous similarities, though it fared better than Abyss. To-date, Abyss is one of Hamilton's least generous novels, one that doesn't match expectations and one that doesn't ignite the imagination.
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War Dogs (War Dogs Trilogy Book 1)
War Dogs (War Dogs Trilogy Book 1)
Price: £5.99

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A trove of questions with a booty of intrigue, 28 Oct. 2014
I've been well through the thick and the thin of Greg Bear's bibliography, through the old and the new, through the series and the stand-alones. I was quite keen on his last stand-alone novel Hull Zero Three (2010) but loathed his slightly earlier City at the End of Time (2008). These ups and downs span more than twenty years: Hegira (1979) was pretty good while Psychlone (1979) was not; Darwin's Radio (1999) was also great while its sequel Darwin's Children (2003) was not. He's one of my favorite authors--also perhaps my favorite "Killer B" of Brin, Bear and Benford--because I first started reading SF thanks to Greg Bear (I'll always remember my first--The Forge of God [1987]).

When I learned that Bear was penning another series (a sequel is currently being written), I had mixed feelings. Aside from the fluctuations of quality writing from Bear, one of my main gripes with actually picking up the novel was my avoidance any novel with the word "war" in it, that being an instant turn off; the glorification of wars and soldiers doesn't fill me with patriotism; rather, it makes me pity the state of the country and its blind folk. I experienced dread when I saw the dedication page: "to all those who served ... in WW2, Korea, and Vietnam".

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I mentioned in the introduction that I have a low tolerance for hero worship, especially blindly worshiping soldiers who are simply agents of war, many of whom probably don't even want (or deserve) the title of "hero". Thankfully, Greg Bear doesn't get all sentimental about the Skyrines and doesn't pump the same soldiers full of bravado, like Michael Venn. Most of the male Skyrine are down on their luck on Mars and live hour by hour near death, only to be saved repeatedly by women--first, Teal; then, their "sisters" of the Skyrines. The men hardly get off a single shot to glorify their status as a Skyrine. The premise of War Dogs strongly suggests that the novel is one punctuated by the terror/excitement of war, but the reality of the novel is the boredom of having life stretched and stretched on Mars.

Michael Venn isn't explored to a great deal--not his loves, his likes, his dislikes, or his open emotion. Like a toughened soldier, he keeps to himself, mostly. He was once the average American WASP--"a white boy from Moscow, Idaho, a blue-collar IT wizard who got tired of working in cubicles" (5)--but he got burnt out in the corporate world and made the decision to join the Skyrines under the united flag of International Sky Defense (ISD). Rather than sit at a desk wasting his life away on Earth, he now sits underground wasting his life away on Mars. Not much of an improvement, but hey, the benefits must be great.

Also downplayed is the limelight on the two competing alien races; the Gurus are only referred to and the Antagonists are only given a brief burst of importance.

Gurus
The Gurus first landed in the Yemeni desert, away from so-called civilized humanity. They accessed communication networks and amassed assets while anonymously posting online "a series of pretty amazing puzzles that attracted the attention of the most curious and intelligent" (8). From these puzzles, technological improvements were discovered and the Gurus made their presence known to world leaders; however, their physical presence had never been seen as human Wait Staff act as their intermediaries or liaisons (Wait Staff), limited to a few dozen. Most importantly, the Gurus bought technological gifts and "a thorough understanding of our own biology, chemistry, and psychology" (189). Humanity didn't look a gift horse in the mouth and blindly accepted the gifts without asking what, exactly, the so-called benevolent race expected in return.

"Gurus were not just being magnanimous with their gifts of tech. They needed our help, and we needed to step up and help them, because these enemies were already inside the far, icy margins of our solar system, were, in fact, trying to establish their own beachhead, but not on Earth." (10)

Antagonists
Michael Venn and all of humanity, aside from the Wait Staff perhaps, don't even know what either race looks like or what their intentions are. The Gurus are completle unforthcoming with their information about the Antagonists: What do they look like? What are they enemies? Where are they from? What are their capabilities? Nothing. Enticing, right?

Given the limited amount of information provided in the narrative, the two alien races had to take a backseat ride (though very interesting occupants they may be) to four heavy elements, each as rich as uranium: (1) Colonization, (2) the Muskies, (3) capitalism and art of the twentieth century, and (4) the Drifter.

Colonization
Prior to the Gurus public arrival, mankind sent a first wave of colonization, funded by the pooled resources of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk. Each of the original colonists paid in the 8-9 figures for their historical moment and later became known as Muskies (after Elon Musk), but the half of them died in transit through the vacuum of our solar system. The "idealism and pioneering spirit" (133) of the colonization drew solid backing for the enterprise but soon parallel grievances struck: the investors never got a return and "the last reserves of [the colonists'] sanity dwindled" (134). Isolated from Earth, Mars became a different sort of ideal--that of a dumping ground for malcontents:

"Then arrived the third wave, including hard-core folks who found Earth too civilized, too restrictive--too stupid. Rugged individualists, political fanatics, IQ theorists seeking to isolate and improve the human gene pool. Diehard bigots and supremacists, happy to turn Mars into a spaghetti western ... Mars was pretty much a lost cause." (79)

The hard-core attitudes of the first three waves eventually became distilled and purified by later generations of settlers, transmogrifying utopian idealism into "a tale of patriarchal tragedy, rigorous discipline--or hypocrisy and cant" (100), their ethos "statistical, mathematically sound ... Atheists by law, strict dogmatists, reductionists ... Techno-racists. Libertanianism pushed to the ultimate extreme" (185).

The Muskies
One confusion I experienced when reading War Dogs was the timeframe. Michael Venn identifies the narrative as taking place in "the twenty-first century" (1) but there are some facts about the Muskies which stretch the timeframe.

A one-way trip to Mars looks like it could be a reality by 2025 for the Mars One Project. Bear doesn't mention the Mars One Project, so he could be speculating a later date for mankind's first colony of Mars. Let's speculate that the colony is set for 2040, a year which would make the three primary investors fairly geriatric: Jeff Bezos (1964) at 74, Richard Branson (1950) at 80, and Elon Musk (1971) at 69. As a projection for the future of the world's richest people, this seems a bit shortsighted.

Enough time passes on Mars that a third "wave" of colonization occurs and enough time has passed that language has changed: "there are now several kinds of accents and dialects and even some newly birthed languages" (74). This is the most interested part of the Muskies. The spoken language of Teal (whose name origin I'll come to in a bit) is called "thinspeak... pronunciation adapted for high altitude or thinner air" (72). This makes the dialogue a tad difficult to understand, but I found it easy to adapt to and follow.

The readers first exposure to thinspeak comes via Tealullah Mackenzie Green--Teal for short--who is a self-exiled member of a community on Mars. For her safety and theirs, she guides the Skyrines to the Drifter (which we'll come to shortly). Having rescued Michael Venn and his squad from certain death on the surface of Mars, he feels indebted to the Martian girl for her timing, thereby introducing the title of the novel:

"Those of us who can, follow her directions ... I am deliriously grateful. I feel the way a pound mutt must fee, rescued just before they seal the hatch on the death chamber.

We're all War Dogs, adopted by a very tall, strong ranch wife." (75)

Interestingly, Tealullah Mackenzie Green an amalgamation of three names: first, Elon Musk's wife's given name, Talulah; second, Jeff Bezos's wife's given name MacKenzie; and last, the surname of Sir Philip Nigel Ross Green, currently the sixth richest British by net worth (just ahead or, surprise, Sir Richard Branson). This leads credence toward the speculative fact that the Mars in the later part of the twenty-first century was, in fact, heavily inspired by the efforts of some of the investors... and perhaps a shared fixation with Michael Venn's obsession for brand names and nostalgia.

Capitalism and Art
At first, as I was reading through War Dogs and recognizing so many company names, brand names, and references to pop culture, that Greg Bear simply dumped these in the novel for a fixed reference to the past which readers could identify with. This is about 50% true. The other 50% of my inkling rests with Tealullah's name and its own references to billionaires. Venn mentions some modern big companies or their products: Roomba, Starbucks, Maersk, Jeep, eBay, Perrier mineral water, Walt Disney, Tootsie Roll, Cheez Whiz, and Tinkertoys. Further, Venn also delves into movie history and trivia: All About Eve (1967), Wind and the Lion (1975), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Castle Keep (1969), and Kelly's Heroes (1970)--all films within a span of eight years (Greg Bear would have been sixteen in 1967). Author indulgence, perhaps?

Finally, there's a nod toward some fiction which perhaps inspired Bear, too: Dune (1965), Lord of the Rings (1954), John Carter of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars (1917), Daniel F. Galouye's Simulacron-3 (1964), Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer character in Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and Jack London's "The King of Mazy May" (1899), and Kim Stanley Robinson for his Mars trilogy (a colony camp is named after him along with Green [as mentioned above], Amazonia [Bezos], and McClain [source unknown]).

The Drifter
Mars is the hook of the novel, but the Drifter is the sinker. It's casually explained that the Drifter is a subterranean mine which has been excavated by a few camps for its "big lodes of iron, nickel, platinum, iridium, aluminum" (102). But it's strange excavation points to bigger mysteries, which are slow to unravel but are tantalizing when considering that War Dogs is but one book to a duology or trilogy (no official word). When the mysteries do begin to unravel, so many unresolved questions ricochet off the inside of the reader's skull, definitely whetting their appetite for book two. I can't spoil anything about the Drifter for the reader... just be sure, it's the center point piece of War Dogs. Mars is like your mom's poinsettia on the dinner table on Christmas morning; the Drifter is the ham on the bone that comes for lunch.

Michael's squad is plagued by a number of questions during their confinement in the Drifter, but two top the heap: Why hadn't the Gurus told them about the Drifter? Is this intrasolar war being fought with Antagonists for control of Drifter?

Not everything is a stone waiting to be turned over, however. Aside from my qualms about the difficulty of pinning down a date and the echo of corporate importance through the decades, there are only three annoyances.

(1) I love new words. Considering that War Dogs is a first-person perspective novel, perhaps the vocabulary is a tad high for the direct storytelling. Michael Venn describes Alice, the woman who has come to Seattle to debrief him, with a number of adjectives. Aside from small and pretty, Venn describes her as "zaftig" four different times. Hey, that's a new word to me, but there are some synonyms which could be used rather than repeat it for fun: e.g., pulchritudinous, buxom, shapely, curvaceous, sonsy, and stacked.

(2) So, mankind finally learns it's not the only species inhabiting the galaxy. Some nations accept the gifts the Gurus have to offer while others shun them. The end. The only repercussion of the contact is technological and its effect on the economy; there cosmological or spiritual side of learning this new `they are out there" truth isn't even glanced at let alone touched upon. And it seems the humans are all too eager to go join another war--aren't those human ever so predictable?

(3) Greg Bear puts a good effort into creating new technologies for weapons (e.g., weak-field disruptors and strong-field suppressors), but at times the reach for a new technology feels uninspired, unseen, or simply forgotten. I estimate the timeframe for the narrative to be around 2090, so it's a little surprising when "Alice is speaking on her cell" (217). If there are automatic taxis and round trip trips to Mars, certainly cell phones would be outdated by then, or at least called by a different name.

Now... what's the most tantalizing wisp of narcotic vapor from the plot? Well, consider that both alien races--the Gurus and the Antagonists--are barely explored on the superficial level and their motivations remain unknown. This should be enough to whet the appetite for most SF fanboys. Toward the end of the novel, a revelation is made which seems to wrap a few things up, but another enticing wisp lingers in the mind: the platinum slug which Michael found in the Drifter and brought back with him to Earth; it holds some significance but little attention is paid to it other than is has a "long, coiling string of tiny numbers and letters" (94).

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If you've got patience for a constant struggle of a handful of soldier on the surface of Mars, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the bounty of mysteries buried in the Drifter and the repercussions it may have on mankind's relationship with the Gurus, the relationship between the Gurus and the Antagonists, and, ultimately, mankind's relationship with itself. Though the Guru's have superior knowledge of humankind's "biology, chemistry, and psychology" (189), only mankind can tell itself what its true place and purpose is in the mechanism of the universe...

...when's that sequel coming?
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