17 August 2015

Books: Time Salvager by Wesley Chu (2015)

After three “urban” style fantasy slash science fiction novels that made up his Tao series, Wesely Chu gives us a science fiction novel about the future with time travel elements in Time Salvager.

And while Chu is very good at world building, there is a sense that this book covers too of the same tropes in science fiction we've seen so many times before.
Much like The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey (and many recent novels depicting Earths future) our planet of the 26th Century is a mess, as Earth is dying, having been devastated by war, plague, and corporate tyranny. The planets and moons of our solar system is where many live now, and humans have encountered aliens. ChronoCom is a company that uses chronmen –essentially convicted criminals who pay off their debt to society by traveling back in time to recover resources and financial treasures from the past. If they survive long enough –too much time travel can kill you- you are set free. James Griffin-Mars is one such chronman. 

There are rules, of course. Every trip back must coincide with an end event, sort of like going back and “stealing” things that would’ve been destroyed anyways -so you can’t change history another words. And you definitely, most assuredly, cannot bring someone from the past into the future. But a trip to 2097 changes everything for James. There he meets Elise Kim, a scientist working on a scientific base that is about to be destroyed. While it’s destruction proved to be the catalyst for Earth’s dystopian fall, no one in the 26th Century is actually sure how and why this place blew up. But in a brief moment of humanity (or that old trope of falling in love at first sight), James brings Elise into his world of mid-26th Century. And while the media and his bosses are astounded at James breaking the number one law of time travel, this one action sets up a chain of events that puts the chronman and Elise on the run. For someone is willing to go to great strides to get Elise back. And it’s not because she holds the livability of Earth’s future in her hands. Okay, maybe just that.

While I love time travel stories and love Chu’s world building skills and his sense of humor, with Time Salvager (a start of new series it appears) I quickly realized that the book has major problems, not only with paradoxes that time travel incontrovertibly creates, but with the sense of déjà vu –we’ve seen this all before. What we get is a bunch of cobbled together set pieces that time travel and science fiction dystopian stories have a tendency to do these days, which is trying to out ape Philip K. Dicks Blade Runner type future, along with trips back to Nazi Germany (why the Nazi's?), descriptions of world events like the Big Brother Era, or the Artificial Intelligence Era (hello, Skynet) that all lead to Earth’s end. Chu also borrows a bit of themes from The Expanse series as well, with the Valta folks and their cartoon like villain Kuo. While I liked James, there was never a moment where I thought his desire to protect Elise did not have shades of creepiness to them. And Elise, whom I suspect was designed as kick-ass heroine, comes off less three dimensional than I would’ve liked. There were times I felt she was nothing more a fanboys wet dream. Meh.

Then, as the book unwinds, we discover all the lies of time travel (which is given its magical candy-like description) and the One Huge Time Travel Paradox that goes unexplained (perhaps in another book?).

I have to admit, it was a struggle to get through the book. Yes, his future is a bit unsettling. But we’ve seen it all before. I mean, if you’re going to write a tale that has been done a thousand times, at least add something new to it. Time Salvager just isn’t that.

01 August 2015

Books: MagicNet By John DeChancie (1994)

 Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I was reading a lot of fantasy novels. All were serious and literate and all seemed to want to outdo Tolkien. So as I got bored with some of those titles and authors, I found a subgenre of fantasy –humorist parodies. Of course parodies have always been around –National Lampoon is famous for their Lord of the Rings parody- but I generally ignored them until I discovered John DeChancie’s Castle Perilous series. Here was a light fantasy novel that was imbued with a lot of humor. Essentially, I found them a good cleansing read after some other big and bold and dramatic fantasy involving dragons, castles, wizards and all the other usual suspects that come with the genre.

I stopped reading the Castle Perilous (along with a lot of others, which some I regret) books long before book 8 in that series was released. I don’t know why, though. I guess I was reading other stuff and I felt they no longer fit whatever criteria I had back then? Again, I don’t know. But I would see those Perilous books at used bookstores over the years, and try to remember where I stopped. But alas, to this day, I can’t recall. I don’t think I ever read his Skyway series either, but that’s another thing I can’t be sure of. Of course those were more science fiction than fantasy, so that may have been the reason. 

But a few months ago, I found DeChancie on Facebook, liked his page and began seeing his prolific posts (much like David Gerrold, both these authors –and many others- have found a new audience in social media). There he talked about publishing another Perilous novel (last one was released in 1994) and other things. It got me to thinking, maybe with the new ninth novel, I should go back and re-read the other books (even though I don’t do this as a habit, re-reading books) again. But in the last 25 years, I had trimmed a lot of books out of my collection (a lot was tossed when I left the Bay Area in 1992 to return to Chicago. I made a huge mistake then). So much like I’ve been doing since Terry Pratchett passed (buying his books for the first time), I’ve been on the hunt for the previous Perilous books. But, of course, they’re only available used. Which is fine with me (an attitude that has changed since Borders closed in 2011 and finances became tough), but I’ve gotten the first six books locally and hope to find the last two when I’m up in Portland while making the Jay Bell novel Something Like Summer into a movie. 

I also recently came across Dr. Dimension (written with David Bischoff) which I had read, but bought anyways and MagicNet, a book of his I had not read.

MagicNet is a sort of Dark Fantasy tale overlaid with some science fiction, as its plot uses (early) computer communication and sorcery. Essentially with computers hacked into a magical realm (sort of alternate universe, but not quite), magic spells become easier and more powerful. And what person does not want more power when they have access to it? But it begins with a phone call to Schuyler King from a programming friend Grant Barrington. King, like most of DeChancie’s hero’s, has a smart mouth. But he’s happy. That is until the phone call from Grant who warns him that he’ll be getting a mysterious package from him, one that holds great secrets and power; one that someone on MagicNet will kill for. 

Rushing to his friends’ house, Skye discovers Grant dead and the monster that killed him –a real monster by the way- is still at the scene of the crime. After barely escaping with his life, Skye opens that package and discovers it contains software that when installed onto a computer, it conjures up Grant's ghost, who wants him to confront Merlin Jones, sorcerer who is scheming to consolidate his growing power over MagicNet that could bring the end of the world.

As with his Castle Perilous novels, there is a lighthearted approach to the tone of the book, making me feel I was reading a fluffier version of Tim Power’s, whose career is based on fantasy books set in the real world. The sarcastic humor helps the sometimes absurd plotting, and the ending is rather too neat, but I still found the book enjoyable.

28 July 2015

Books: The Fold By Peter Clines (2015)

"The folks in Mike Erikson's small New England town would say he's just your average, everyday guy. And that's exactly how Mike likes it. Sure, the life he's chosen isn’t much of a challenge to someone with his unique gifts, but he’s content with his quiet and peaceful existence. That is, until an old friend presents him with an irresistible mystery, one that Mike is uniquely qualified to solve: far out in the California desert, a team of DARPA scientists has invented a device they affectionately call the Albuquerque Door. Using a cryptic computer equation and magnetic fields to “fold” dimensions, it shrinks distances so that a traveler can travel hundreds of feet with a single step. The invention promises to make mankind’s dreams of teleportation a reality. And, the scientists insist, traveling through the Door is completely safe. Yet evidence is mounting that this miraculous machine isn’t quite what it seems—and that its creators are harboring a dangerous secret.  As his investigations draw him deeper into the puzzle, Mike begins to fear there’s only one answer that makes sense. And if he’s right, it may only be a matter of time before the project destroys…everything".

As I was reading The Fold, I could not get over the feeling that I was reading A). A fan fic story that blends Star Trek and Doctor Who and B) A teleplay for a pilot of a TV series. Then at the end, in Peter Clines Afterword, the author notes this novel began as a short story when he was in a college literary class (and notes how the teacher seemed to be upset that he was writing this story versus something with more heft). And that it took years of rewrites, being stored away and then more rewrites for its publication this year. Leland "Mike" Erikson, described as Mycroft more than Sherlock Holmes by Clines, is really those two literary characters melded with Gene Roddenberry's Spock. While there are people who are like Erickson - he has an eidetic memory, which means he remembers everything he's exposed to with great detail- I kind of felt that Clines created a human supercomputer that may not truly exist (I don't know, never met a person with that type of capabilities). 

For Star Trek fans -and which gave me the feeling Clines was writing fan-fic- the plot is full of nods to the The Original Series. Of course the whole idea of the multiverse comes from comic books, but even Doctor Who and Star Trek have used this device for selling their drama. And Clines does out of his way to explain the idea of the possible real science behind the Albuquerque Door (which is a reference to Bugs Bunny and which I find ironic  because this week the animated character is celebrating it's 75th anniversary), but resorts to "magic" as it were to avoid really explaining the whole way it could work. Meanwhile, I kind of hated all the scientists working on the project. While we get a reasonable explanation of their attitudes about what they're doing and why they hate the "government" (who is of course paying for it)  for interfering in their project (much like David Marcus whined about Starfleet taking Genesis in Wrath of Khan), they're all kind of unlikable. Clines sort of paints the scientists as anti-social, secretive, and distrustful of everyone, including their fellow scientists. 

Another problem I had with the book was the last hundred or so pages, when the plot devolves from theoretical science to "Attack of the Creatures From Galileo Seven Episode of Star Trek". I felt this was so out of place with the rest of the plot, which for the most part was stuck in this "reality". Again, the idea that this novel started out as a short story some decade and half ago explains why Clines resorted to this pulpy style after pages and pages of character building; he got painted into a corner, really. And then the book ends with the arrival of a secrect governmental agents (Scully and Mulder?) who offer the surviving folks jobs dealing with the "weird." 

Finally, the prose is sparse (it reads, at times, like a teleplay), the F word gets thrown about like grenades, and the book reads like Clines is trying to get a certain cable network interested in a series based on the book -or is thinking he can take his super smart, super eidetic memory man and create an new book series. 

Funny, I did like The Fold (the concept is cool), but I found the execution a bit pedantic. Still, if this book went through the many iterations as Clines describes in his Afterword, perhaps while the idea was interesting, perhaps a short story or novella would have served the approach better? 

15 July 2015

Books: Nemesis Games By James S.A. Corey (2015)

In Nemesis Games, the fifth volume of The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey, we see the series adding a new wrinkle in the ever growing feud between Earth, Mars and the 'Belters. And by it's end, everything has changed and the reader is left wondering what's to come next. One of the striking changes in this novel is how Corey (pseudonym for Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham) changes the narrative style that he's has used in the other books; the host of voices of multiple characters that propel the story have been set aside and this time he uses just the four main ones: James Holden, Naomi, Alex, and Amos. And for the first time, as well, we get backstories on them, which was cool and interesting. 
We start some months after the events of Cibola Burns where the protomolocule's gate had open its eye to countless new worlds for humanity to expand. But a mystery is unfolding as ships heading through the gate are vanishing, but the crew of the Rocinante are spread out across the solar system as their ship is being repaired. Alex returns to Mars to reconnect with family, while Amos returns to Earth to pay his respects to an old friend. Meanwhile, Naomi is called back to her own roots within the belt, only to discover her past is rushing to her, and Holden is recruited by OPA leader Fred Johnson to investigate the disappearances of the ships leaving. 
But a faction of Belter OPA folks, tired of the political games and who sees their power slipping away -with the gate offering new worlds, Mars terraforming project is threatened and the Belters are seeing their source of supplies and resources going with those ships- launches a devastating attack on Earth and Mars. This brazen action plunges the solar system into chaos, but who is really behind this shift? Who will survive, who will pay the ultimate price?
I did not realize how long overdue the backstories of the characters were needed. Alex, Amos, and Naomi have complicated lives, and getting to know them better was a smart move. And much like the previous four books, and much like what science fiction has done in the past, the writers overlay today's problems into their future world, adding another layer of political strife. The Belters have always felt like they've risked so much (and they have) for both Mars and Earth and have seen little or none of the rewards because we see many who overlook the human cost that comes with moving out amongst the stars. Yes, money is still the driving factor. While currents of racism and economic inequality have always been the undercurrents of this series since it began, in Nemesis Games we see what happens when radicalized men and women lash out with devastating results -the near destruction of Earth (woohoo, its all post-apocalyptic now) and attempted assassination of Mars and Luna's political leaders.
After the Earth attack, I will admit, it was hard for me to now see OPA -or the radical faction of it- could have any redeeming aspects. Sure, Fred Johnson is less an antagonist than in the past (sort of the same way Star Trek: DS9 tried to give the appearance that Gul Dukat had some humanity), but the violent, terrorist act of Marcos Inaros and his fellow Belters indicates that at least the authors realized that series might be getting predictable and gave the readers a choice to contemplate -are they "freedom fighters" throwing off the chains of oppression, or are they just another degree of terrorist whom brought the Twin Towers done?
I do enjoy these books, and it'll be interesting to see how well they translate to the TV screen when the cable net Syfy brings us the first 10 episode season later this year. The trailer looks cool, but it is Syfy. So who knows?

02 July 2015

Books: Finders Keepers By Stephen King (2015)

Stephen King once again dips his pen (or word processor) into the concept of what an author owes his fans. In an age of Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook where writers can interact with their readers in a more stalky, and intimate way than even book signings and other appearances can give, Finders Keepers (the second entry in a trilogy that began with last years Mr. Mercedes) takes us deeper into that writer/reader relationship with book lover Morris Bellamy and his favorite writer, the Salingeresque John Rothstein. 

King does not cover up the fact that he is using Salinger as a model, as Rothstein lives in a small New Hampshire town some two miles from the nearest neighbor, and has been in recluse since publishing his last novel some eighteen years earlier -although he has continued to write. Because much like Salinger, Rothstein has filled up dozens of leather Moleskin notebooks with unpublished stories, including two novels featuring the troubled young man named Jimmy Gold -which he stashes in his safe along with some $24,000 in cash.

While Annie Wilkes of Misery could be called crazy, Morris Bellamy is far from that. He could be called smart, but like some of us, he becomes his worst enemy when things go rotten. Even though his mom is a celebrated author, Bellamy's life has been tough since his dad left them. But he found something to identify in Rothstein's character of Jimmy Gold and until that third book, Morris was in love. Now bent on confronting his hero writer, Bellamy (and two really stupid coconspirators) break into Rothstein's house. Of course, Morris wants answers, while Curtis and Freddy want the money. After being mocked by Rothstein, Morris shoots him dead and the three make off with the cash and the notebooks -though only one returns back to the old home town. 
And it's there, in what is described as “filthy little city that residents called the Gem of the Great Lakes,” Morris Bellamy's world unwinds. For he brags to the only person there he calls a friend, a bookseller of rare tomes, of what he did and what he has now in his possession. But Andrew Halliday is horrified at the news, which then sends Bellamy into a drunken' stupor and a blackout. When he awakens he realizes he's in jail. But while he's not there for three murders, he has committed a violent rape that will see him incarcerated for life. 
The first 157 pages are essentially a prologue, as King sets up the backstory that will follow. In those first quarter he flashes between 1978 and 2009 through 2014 where we meet the family who is now living in the house where Bellamy grew up. And the Saubers, Tom, his wife Linda and their kids Pete and Tina, seem more down on their luck than Morris. Tom was injured when a maniac drove a Mercedes into a crowd of people at a job fair, killing 8 and injuring countless others (which is the opening chapter of Mr. Mercedes) and that financial woes of the accident and the economy seem to be bringing their marriage to a close. But then Pete stumbles upon a trunk full of money and Moleskin notebooks and hatches a plan to give that money to his parents. He also discovers what is written in those notebooks and he too falls in love with Rothstein and the character of Jimmy Gold. But he soon realizes he has two never-published fourth and fifth books in that series and also learns the author sort of did a course correct on Gold -something that long imprisoned Morris Bellamy does not know about.
The back half of the book deals with Morris being paroled and when he goes back to his home town to discovers his stash is missing. This is also where we finally get reacquainted with  retired cop Kermit William ("Bill" to friends) Hodges who has formed his own repo company called Finders Keepers and employs Holly Gibney. Eventually Jerome Robinson returns from college to help investigate Pete (Tina is convinced Pete gave the money and is now scared her brother is in trouble). We also get a return visit of Mr. Mercedes himself, Brady Hartfield. This sub-plot is seemingly -and what appears to be a supernatural one at that- a small Easter egg for readers to know that a final confrontation between Hodges and Brady is to come in next years End of Watch (I'm not sure fans of crime fiction will like this development, especially after Mr. Mercedes was handed the 2014 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America). 
Of course, beyond Salinger there appears to other literary references within Finders Keepers, such as Rothstein's fiction trilogy of "The Runner”, “The Runner Sees Action”, and “The Runner Slows Down,” which evokes John Updikes Rabbit books. And Philip Roth lurks with the name of King's famous writer. In the end, this examination between writers and fans is always interesting for me. While I adore King and have not always been pleased with his works (Tommyknockers remains unread), I would never consider myself such a fan that I should end up stalking them or demanding they change the fates of characters.

28 June 2015

Books: Boo By Neil Smith (2015)

I heard about Boo by Neil Smith on Facebook. I "liked" a page dedicated to the old businesses that used to be around my home town of Hoffman Estates, Illinois during the 60s, the 70s, and 80s. Someone commented on they were reading this book, which has the main character going to Helen Keller Junior High School, the same one I went to. Intrigued, I got the book from my library here and took on reading the story of Oliver "Boo" Dalrymple, a pale eighth grader who aspires to be a scientist and whom, not surprisingly, a pariah within his social structure.
It is the first week of the new school year, September 7, 1979. Boo and his classmates are marching through their school, going to classes, hunting through their lockers (Boo's is number 106) when something…happens. The next thing Boo realizes is he's not in school, but in some other place called Town. And soon after, he understands that he's dead and Town is the afterlife exclusively for 13 year-old Americans. As Boo narrates his story to his parents, he tells them that in Town there are no trees or animals, just endless rows of redbrick dormitories surrounded by unscalable walls. No one grows or ages, but everyone arrives just slightly altered from who he or she was before. To Boo’s great surprise, the qualities that made him an outcast at home win him friends; and he finds himself capable of a joy he has never experienced. Soon after another boy from his school, Johnny Henzel arrives and brings him a surprising news about the circumstances of the boys' deaths. But there is a darker side to life after death—and as Boo and Johnny attempt to learn what happened that fateful day, they discover a disturbing truth that will have profound repercussions for both of them.
This is no gimmicky fairy tale though, as Smith takes on serious issues that effect teenagers today like  metal illness, bullying, suicide and school shootings. Yes, it maybe set in 1979 and those issues were hardly news today, but that's not the point here. Neil Smith, although born in Canada and now resides there, went to school at Helen Keller Junior High (and maybe Lakeview Elementary which he also mentions) and is using his school years as template to explore modern issues that teenagers face. Boo can be anyone, really, a thirteen year-old whom is a science nerd. And always, through time immortal, those boys have always been tortured. Then there's Johnny, a boy whom had psychiatric problems before coming to Town. He too seems destined to have a horrible label. 
The book become a bit more darker and at times shocking towards the end, and Boo's Cliff Clavin style of knowing everything about everything gets a bit weary, but it's a fantastic book for adults and teens. It opens a door to understanding that the past and the present are pretty much connected. Our problems mirror our children's when navigating the teen years. Plus, it was just weird to here the names of two schools my siblings and I went to in a major novel. 

25 June 2015

Books: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August By Claire North (2014)

The authors name on The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is Claire North, but on the back flyleaf, we're told Claire North is a pseudonym. But since this novel was released well over a year ago, it's become public that Claire North is actually Catherine Webb, a Carnegie Medal-nominated author whose first book, Mirror Dreams, was written when she was just 14 years old. She went on to write seven more successful young-adult novels, and also wrote a series of successful fantasy novels for adults under the pseudonym Kate Griffin, the Matthew Swift and Magicals Anonymous novels. Of course that does not take away anything for me, as I've never read books under her real name or fake ones. And it does not take away anything about this book, which is by far one of the most cleverest takes on time travel I've read. 
We learn early that Harry August is an "ouroborans", a "kalachakra", a person who lives and dies and then is reborn, again and again. And each ouroborans remember their pervious life as well (at about four or five they begin to realize they have lived before), but Harry is an extra special kalachakra, for he is also a mnemonic, which means he retain nearly everything he's been exposed to through in his previous lives. So these people live sort of like a Groundhog's Day loop that starts at birth and continues through death -whenever that happens. They're like the Time Lords in Doctor Who, but without the actual time travel - because only information (and personal memories) can travel back through time.
We also meet other kalachakra's and discover a whole secret society, called the Cronus Club, of folks who've lived for thousands of years. And as Harry meets the same people (some who have minor changes in their lives, some with other major changes as they relive their lives), experiencing the same events, you realize this condition gives Harry and others almost godlike powers. And it doesn't take long for Harry to realize that -via a six year-old girl who visits Harry when he is dying in 1996 and tells him the future, her future and the worlds, is ending sooner than it should and that one their own, another ourborans, has decided that he does want to become a god and decides to change the past to alter the future. 
This sets Harry on an adventure of many lives to figure out whom is advancing science that will eventually erase all the kalachakra's from time and eventually the world. 
This is a well plotted, well thought out thriller and North does some wonderful worldbuilding here. It's a rare science fiction book of the 21st Century that comes out fully formed, with an igneous plot  that is familiar, yet not. Harry August is a likable hero, smart, funny, and tale works nearly to end. The plotting is addictive (she takes the short chapter approach made popular by James Patterson), yet it's done in such a way that I never felt exploited. I continued reading because North had created such a brilliant take on time travel, on the idea of the "what if everyone had a second chance to relive their lives (and remember it with great detail) and what they would do to change it on the second, third, or fourth time around?"
In many ways, as I read the book, I could not help but think of Doctor Who during it's early 1970s incarnation with the Doctor battling his archenemies (and fellow Time Lord) the Master, who was always trying to alter the present to effect the future. I'm not sure if North (or Webb) is actually a Who fan (and she was born in London during the shows wilderness years), but she is clearly inspired by it. 
It's a masterful book, and clever in so many ways. I'm shocked that it took me well over a year to discover it, and also shocked this book has not been a bigger hit.